Rescue Warriors: The U.S. Coast Guard, America’s Forgotten Heroes
© 2009 David Helvarg
When Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, the Coast Guard was the first on the scene, with helicopters in the air saving lives long before FEMA stirred. Though one of the United States’ military branches, the Coast Guard is an unusual institution; best-known for its high profile search and rescue missions. Far and away the smallest military branch – and the most physically and academically rigorous in terms of its recruiting requirements — the Coast Guard’s mission takes it far beyond safe and shallow coastal waters. Rescue Warriors provides both a history of and a tribute to this oft-overlooked service, mixing history of its various missions and interviews with men and women working overtime to preserve lives and keep the coasts safe.
Although the Coast Guard was officially organized in 1915, it prefers to trace its history back to the revenue cutters of George Washington’s administration, which enforced and collected customs and tariff fees. Another parent organization was that of the lighthouse and lightship service. The present Coast Guard has maintained that duel-purpose organization, simultaneously enforcing maritime law and rescuing those in danger. Its mission portfolio is vast: in Rescue Warriors, Helvarg interviews search-and-rescue teams, drug-enforcement patrols, counter-terrorism missions, environmental cleanup crews, science stations, and even more. Helvarg spent time with servicemen and officers from around the United States’ territorial waters: the Gulf Coast, New England, California, Alaska, Hawaii, and even (with Canadian ‘permission’) in the Artic northwest passage. Despite its ‘coast’ guard name, Coasties may be found throughout the world: their boarding teams are especially relied upon in the Persian Gulf, boarding local boats (with consent) to ask about pirate concerns – and fishing for information on parties hostile toward the governments of Iraq and the United States. (If the Coast Guard being a military branch simultaneously providing law enforcement seems constitutionally questionable, that isn’t surprising given that Wilson presided over their formal creation: he never met a constitutional curb he wouldn’t drive over.)
The demands placed on the Coast Guard only seem to be increasing: a global economy means more ships to monitor, and with the Artic now open for commercial traffic and industry, there will be still more ground to cover. The Coast Guard is much smaller than even the closest other service, the US Marines, but the gulf between its responsibilities and resources has demanded a great deal of efficiency. The average age of a Coast Guard ship is thirty-five years, and its officers’ training vessel, the Eagle, was built in 1936. That’s resource conservation, though when a helicopter requires 40 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight time…. The reason for the Guard’s physical and mental demands becomes obvious in reading this: they are operational every day, not simply training for the next big conflict, and they often go against nature at its hairiest – flying helicopters into punishing winds to seek out those in peril on the sea. They’re also up against human nature: in the opening chapter on rescue operations in Hurricane Katrina, the Guard’s Seahawk helicopters took ground fire from locals; another man threatened to shoot a helo crew if they didn’t rescue him, and when they dropped people off at a CG station, it was promptly looted – though the ammunition locker refused to give up its contents. At least against cartel gunmen, the Coast Guard is authorized for “Airborne Use of Force”.
Rescue Warriors makes for encouraging reading, filled with tales of rescue, of men and women stretching themselves so that others might live. Helvarg sees the Coast Guard’s historical legacy and current role as exemplary, highlighting the early employment of women in the lighthouse service, and urges that the Coast Guard be given more resources so that it might serve the United States’ expanding needs. Ultimately, this is a fun read, a mix of history, present-day history stories, and a fair bit of editorializing by the author whenever there is an environmental connection.
The Heart and the Fist, Eric Greitens. The memoirs of a humanitarian-turned-Navy SEAL, another mix of service and force.