- The Washington Times - Monday, October 22, 2001

The call could come any time. It might be a sailboat suddenly in trouble, a smuggling boat sprinting for the coast or an oil tanker stranded in a field of encroaching ice.

They are always prepared for the call. It's why they enlisted, it's what they train for, it's the motto that they live by. They are the members of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). On any day, at any time, any one of the more than 35,000 active-duty individuals in the Coast Guard could be faced with a crisis call of water and breath or of life and death.

Lt. Mike Davanzo has heard those calls. He is the commanding officer of the USCG James Rankin, a 175-foot-long buoy tender assigned to the Chesapeake Bay area. While the Rankin normally assists with everything from search-and-rescue to marine environmental protection, it has now been called to help protect the Potomac from potential terrorist actions.

Busy as Lt. Davanzo was, he recently answered the call to provide information to the public by taking aboard a group of journalists for a patrol up the Potomac, from Old Town to Hains Point. According to Lt. Davanzo, the Coast Guard has made it a point to identify every boat currently on the Potomac, a condition called Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA).

To help a commanding officer reach MDA before going mad, the Rankin's bridge had a computer with what looked like a billion-dollar version of Mapquest. The multicolored display showed the position of the Rankin and the position of everything else along that stretch of the Potomac, including buoys, boats and bridges. The display also showed "the spot," the point to which we were headed, and a ghost image of where the Rankin would be moments later if it continued along its heading. Along one side of the display were readouts of the Rankin's speed and direction, and the sometimes disparate directions that the Rankin was being pushed by both the wind running over it and the currents rushing under it. If asked, the computer could have probably displayed the astrology signs of each crew member and the astral convergences that they should avoid sailing under. Unsurprisingly, none of the older officers could demonstrate how the display worked that was left to a young ensign named Dooley.

Unfortunately, there was little traffic for the display to track. While it was the perfect sort of fall day that almost make Washington's steamy summers worth suffering through, practically nothing was moving besides the occasional patrol boat. That might have had something to do with the fact that a shooting war had just started.

Yet, regardless of peace or war, the individuals in the Coast Guard would have been out there, as they have been for the 211 years of the Coast Guard's existence. It's their credo their calling. During the cacophonous decade of the 1990s, they were marching to the muffled drumbeat of service while others were rushing to the ringing call of the cash register. While Internet millionaires were putting up down payments on yachts, they were volunteering to go out to rescue individuals on yachts that were going down.

Lt. Richard Wester, an officer I met while on the tour, is one of them. While serving as a boarding officer aboard the USCG Escape during the Haitian migration about seven years ago, a wildly overloaded sailboat capsized in front of his eyes. He was throwing life jackets to the 26 persons struggling in the 8-foot swells, when something shocking caught his eye. An infant who had floated away from its mother suddenly disappeared beneath the waves. Lt. Wester heard its silent scream. Even though he was dressed in full boarding gear including a bullet-proof vest, a service 9-mm and steel-toed boots he immediately dove into the angry waves. He saved the infant, and then he pulled three other Haitians to safety. His shipmates saved the other 22. Why did he do it? "Instinct, I guess." For instinctively answering the call, Lt. Wester was awarded a meritorious service medal.

A few years later, Lt. Wester and his shipmates aboard the ice-breaking tug USCGC Neah Bay answered another call, this one from a tug and barge combination beset by ice in Lake Erie. That barge was carrying more than 1 million gallons of crude oil and was being pushed by wind and water into the shoal water of a nearby island, threatening a Great Lakes-sized Exxon Valdez catastrophe. As the Meritorious Team Commendation later described it, "Through decisive action and five hours of superb seamanship and steady resolve, Nea Bay maneuvered the stricken tug and barge back into the wind, away from shoal water and the threat of grounding." To do so, Lt. Wester and his shipmates grounded many of their ambitions and hopes for a luxurious life. They sacrificed, they continue to sacrifice, to answer the call of service.

A few days after my tour, I talked it over with another Coast Guard officer, my cousin, who currently works at Coast Guard Headquarters. He told me that his calling to the Coast Guard was never about the money. Rather, it was akin to that of firefighters and police officers, who often rescue people far wealthier. Like them, like their brothers and sisters in the armed services, Coast Guardsmen listen to the faint call to duty, they heed the insistent call of idealism. They do it every day, they are ready every hour.

When this war on terror ends, they will still be there, silently patrolling the always-turbulent seas, quietly waiting for the call.

Charles Rousseaux is an editor for the Commentary pages and an editorial writer for The Washington Times.


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