West of Woolwich: Heroes and Veterans -- Lost and Found

Posted Wednesday, October 31, 2012 in Features

West of Woolwich: Heroes and Veterans -- Lost and Found

by Fred Kahrl

We live in “The City of Ships”, and … though perhaps we fail to think of ourselves as such these days … we, as a community, probably have a higher percentage of sea-savvy residents than any other city in the USA. As a result, Bath and its environs probably gave the loudest collective gasp in the nation when this picture flashed on their television screens: the replica “tall ship” HMS Bounty going down off Cape Hatteras.

This is the city whose international reputation was built on nearly 200 years of building vessels like the Bounty that sailed around the world. As students of the history of sail, most of us know enough to be stricken by the sight of this floating museum with its topmasts shorn, all but one of its yards swept away, and the proud hull awash … soon to slip beneath the waves.

 Even readers of tales of the age of sail … fact and fiction … could not be fully prepared to be witnesses to this tragic loss, punctuated by the loss of the Captain and the death of one of the other fifteen crewmembers.

We experienced this footnote to Hurricane Sally’s punishment through the miracle of modern technology, expertly adapted by the sailors’ savior, the modern U.S. Coast Guard. The two flight crews, including the two rescue swimmers, are today’s heroes and media darlings, though they modestly point out that this is what they are trained to do.

But fame is fickle and, except for the two new shows on the Weather Channel featuring the work of the Coast Guard in Florida and Alaska, the average American will quickly forget this episode.

Since I served in Alaska, I am particularly attached to that series and haven’t tuned into the new Florida addition yet.  So, I don’t know if the show has been brave enough to show this side of the service:

Based in Miami, this small detachment concentrates on stopping drug-runners that us high speed watercraft. These armed helos have proven to be highly effective, and are a reminder that the Coast Guard can perform military-style missions as effectively as humanitarian missions.

But in this media driven world, the Coast Guard maintains a relatively low profile. Its P/R function is adequate, but were it not for the maritime press, many Coast Guard stories would fade quickly for lack of context in a audience that is slowly drifting away from our sea-faring past and present.

It doesn’t help that most Americans don’t know where the Coast Guard fits in the national mix of military and quasi-military agencies. Even in my lifetime, the Coast Guard has been the orphan child of the Treasury Dept., then the Transportation Dept. (!?), and now Homeland Security.

I grew up with the quaint notion that CG Headquarters was in the Pentagon, as the fifth branch of America’s military might.

Not so. It is, rather, in a non-descript building south the Capitol, on the shore of the James River near its confluence with the Potomac.  There are two marinas out front, but no apparent accommodations for USCG vessels. There is a power plant next door. Sort of a metaphor for the public face of the Coast Guard: present and accounted for but not fully understood by its constituency.

I mean … the Coast Guard has a Ceremonial Honor Guard detachment assigned to Washington, D.C. where it performs all the same ceremonial functions as the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine detachments. That includes providing one or more casket bearers when national figures, upon decease, are carried by a mixed group representing all the services to rest in state, etc.

I doubt one in a hundred Americans knows that the sailor in the re-styled blue uniform is a Coastie!

Now, in the final days counting down to our annual recognition of our Veterans, I am reminded that this subtle identity problem that we Coasties have carries on even after we have ended out tour of duty or career. Few if any former Coastguardsmen (and women)  join vets groups, like the American Legion or VFW.  Fewer still opt for a Veteran’s license plate. Rarely are we asked to march in the Veteran’s Day Parades.

Most wonder if they qualify for a Veterans’ Property Tax Exemption.

Even when the VA rep assures use we really ARE Veterans, many of us still feel ambiguous.

Yet, when you are in distress at sea, you know whose red and white planes and vessels you want to have looking for you.

And if you are looking for a Coastie to thank, perhaps you need to start looking for a Veteran.

We would appreciate it.



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