First Person Singular

Sunday, October 14, 2007

I thought I was too small to play Division I football, and Coast Guard had a Division III team. Strange reason to go to [the Coast Guard Academy], but that's what happened. I was only going to stay five years and get out -- I think that's what everybody says -- but it just starts growing on you, especially when you're involved in search and rescue.

We encounter people every day that have been thrown overboard, that are in an airplane that's crashed in the middle of the ocean, on a boat that's capsized or sinking. It doesn't take very many life-and-death cases where you pull somebody out of the water, you give them back their life, to get pretty stoked about this line of work.

When I was a lieutenant in the winter of 1980, we had a barge with about 3 million gallons of oil that grounded at the entrance to the Brigantine wildlife refuge, just north of Atlantic City. There were two men trapped in the deckhouse on the barge. It was almost a whiteout with the blizzard, and we couldn't get anybody to the barge.

Finally, one of our motor lifeboats was able to get near the surf line and could see the barge. I was in the command center talking to the boat on the radio, and the coxswain said: "I think I can make it. I'm going in." Then there was nothing on the radio for 30 minutes. If [the crew members] couldn't get back to the surf line, they were going to be in peril, too. I remember them coming on the radio saying: "We got them! We made it!" -- and by that time I think I'd aged 10 years. The barge was the Michelle F, and the coxswain's name was Matthew Greer. You don't forget that stuff. It's physical and it's emotional. It kind of takes your whole being.

Interview by KK Ottesen

© 2007 The Washington Post Company