Welcome Home: Employees Called to Duty Return
to Families, Work;
As a member of the United States Coast Guard Reserve for more than 16 years, I had been trained in all sorts of Coast Guard missions; search and rescue, boat operations, oil spill and pollution control, drug interdiction. From Kodiak, Alaska to Puerto Rico, this part time job was rewarding and involved me in something different one weekend a month and two weeks a year.
I knew the missions and my responsibilities. Emergency
call-outs were a rarity and only twice had I been so conscripted; once,
for a week during a flood, and once, for three days to search for a
lost tanker. September 11, 2001 changed all that forever.
I had obtained my first permanent position with the National Park Service at Boston National Historical Park after three years as a seasonal ranger at Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park. In Boston, as with many other urban parks, skilled seasonal rangers often come east to receive their permanent status and then work towards getting back out West or other natural national parks.
I knew that as I competed with many other rangers, skills were the ticket to good jobs in the large parks. Anything I could do to increase my chances. The Coast Guard offered me that opportunity. Two years later I found myself as a ranger in the Temple Bar District of Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Arizona/Nevada, patrolling over 640,000 acres by boat and four wheel drive.
As the years went by, I realized that the Coast Guard had become much more than a means to an end. It had become a second career, each complementing the other. In Alaska working with the Coast Guard on oil spills had a direct relationship with my work at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. In Illinois, teaching an environmental ethic to children with the Coast Guard’s Sea Partners Program taught me many skills I use in educating visitors to our National Wildlife Refuges. The added incentives of a 20-year retirement, tuition assistance for my children, and the use of military bases worldwide made this service to my country an easy choice.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001 had a huge impact on the United States Coast Guard and those men and women who serve. On Sept. 17 I was placed on Presidential callout of the Coast Guard and put on a plane to New Orleans, Louisiana, where I spent the next month ensuring the safety of the navigation channel which led to the Mississippi River.
During the following months, the Coast Guard scrambled to bring her law enforcement mission to a greater number of individuals and stations. Training teams were sent nationwide to instruct personnel on weapons, hand to hand fighting techniques, and the basics of coastal warfare. From my position as assistant manager of Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in Southern Illinois, I traveled south to Marine Safety Office, Paducah, Kentucky, to receive training and assignment.
As the nation headed toward war with Iraq, I received a promotion to refuge manager and subsequent transfer to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. My Coast Guard career would now be up to a detailer in Washington, D.C. I filled out the required transfer sheet (or dream sheet as they refer to it) requesting an assignment to Indian River Station, Delaware, ten miles from my new refuge and prepared to move from Illinois to Delaware.
Shortly after my arrival in Delaware I was informed that my new unit was 260 miles away at Fort Eustis Army Base in Virginia. The sprawling home of the Army’s transportation command was also home to the Coast Guard’s Port Security Unit 305, one of six, all Reserve, specialized units designed to deploy overseas as a force asset protecting Navy ships in foreign ports. I’d heard of Port Security Units and knew that this particular outfit had just arrived back in the United States after spending six months in Cuba guarding the Taliban prisoners at Camp X-ray on the Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay, and two months protecting New York Harbor after the attacks on the World Trade Center. I was to report to Port Security Units 305 for their November drill.
The news at 305 was not encouraging. We’re at war and you can expect to be deployed at a moments notice, the Commanding Officer said. I was issued camouflage gear for the desert, biological and chemical weapons protection and three other bags chocked full of military equipment. It all pointed to a long time away from home. The flak jacket, weapons training, helmet and gas mask let me know in no uncertain terms that this was not the Coast Guard I knew.
Knowing I could be called away any day weighed heavy on my mind. My family was in a new home with boxes piled to the ceiling. They knew no one in the community, and my wife had never managed the family finances. Home repair, cars, kids, schools, bills -- it was hard enough with the two of us around, and now it looked like Shawn-Ann would have to go it alone.
What made matters worse was the Federal Government’s pay policy towards Reservists called to active duty. Unlike many large companies, state and local governments, who make up the difference in pay, the Federal Government only pays military leave for 15 days a year, or three weeks wages. After that you were basically on your own to survive on your military salary. I knew the monetary difference between my civilian federal job and my military job would not cover much beyond food and shelter. Thousands of reservists suffer greatly under this inequity. Health benefits, retirement plans and loans are all affected by military service beyond 30 days.
At work, I was a new refuge manager. It was all I could do to get my bearing and understand the complexities of a large national wildlife refuge. What would my staff think of my leaving? Would the community understand? At least I knew my job would be there for me when I returned, protected under the Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act of 1940.
On Feb. 1, 2003 the call came in. There was no time left
for questions. The country was at war and I was leaving. he orders were
without question. “You are to report to Port Security Unit 305
within 24 hours for immediate deployment.” No who, what, where
-- only a when.
The bus pulled into Langley Air Force Base, Virginia at 8.30 pm., Feb. 3, 2003. One hundred and nineteen souls headed to destination unknown. Some were talking Turkey (no pun intended), some Egypt, some Spain, and some Greece, the guesses based on the fact that we were in our green camouflage and not our desert issue. We loaded into a chartered 747 and taxied onto the runway.
“You’re probably wondering
where we’re going,” our Commanding Officer began as we leveled
off at a cruising altitude. “U.S. Naval Station Rota, Spain…that’s
our initial destination. From there we await orders to either protect
that port, or move east into theater (military lingo for where the action
is). We won’t know until the order is given so don’t ask.
When I know, you’ll know. Get some sleep, it’s a long flight.”
NAVSTA Rota was home to the American Naval Command in Spain. It was not an American base; we were just a tenant allowed to operate on this very large Spanish military installation. The base also housed several U.S. Air Force units, a Marine Corps security unit and the Naval Air Station. The Spanish maintained a large contingent of ships and support functions here along with an air station and maintenance facility. When you combined the two operations NAVSTA was a big place. More than 10,000 acres and some 20,000 people.
If I told you I was roughing it -- based on my sleeping arraignments -- that would not be quite true. For a biologist and lover of the great outdoors, Rota was a paradise. Woods, coastline, lagoons and wildlife everywhere. While I couldn’t convince any of my shipmates to explore with me, I began to venture out a bit further onto the base each day after work. Work…now that’s something to talk about.
It seems as though the Spanish government didn’t really want us here protecting their port. They could do that just fine themselves, thank you very much. They would not allow us to off load our weapons, equip our boats, or otherwise do the job we had trained to do. Our “job” was to await further orders while the politicians discussed access to Turkey. Nobody in the command was happy about it, but it was beyond their control. So we waited. We had a training regime until noon each day. After that, some worked out, some hid, some got tattoos, some read, some drank, and I got lost in the woods.
By week two I had walked the entire base, and discovered over 60 species of bird, reptile, and mammal. There were insects of all type and shape here and even a few waterfowl to keep me guessing. I was making lists and sharing them with anyone who would listen.
One thing that consistently bothered me was the trash on base. It was everywhere. In the storm drains throughout the base, in the ponds, ditches, parking lots, everywhere. The Spanish smoke a lot and the cigarette butt is alive and well in Rota Spain. One day I was so disgusted with it all that I walked over to the base public affairs office. A sign on the door said back in ten minutes so I sat down and waited. A pile of the base’s weekly newsletter, The Coastline, sat on the table in front of me. Then it hit me. If granted permission, I would write a story about NAVSTA Rota’s wildlife and address the litter problem at the same time in the base newsletter.
Chief Hansen was pleased to have me write an article. “Hey, the more you write, the less we have to,” he said with a grin. “You mean I could write more than an article,” I asked. “Sure, what would you like to do?” “How about one on birds? How about one on insects? Heck, I don’t know how long I’ll be here, how about a weekly column.” A handshake sealed the deal.
I was like a man possessed. Here was an opportunity to play environmentalist and reservist at the same time. I decided to write under the name Nature Boy and was given a half page space in The Coastline. The articles started out with the fun stuff, hiking, birds, bugs, and reptiles and seemed to be popular with the base population. I was receiving 15 to 20 e-mails a week from readers who either wanted more information on a subject or just wanted to say thanks for the articles. From there, I started addressing the problems of trash, water quality, air quality, and even created the fictional character “Buttman,” complete with a cartoon character and posters, to describe in comic detail the impact the cigarette butt has on wildlife and the world.
As the weeks turned into months, Nature Boy became a regular gig for me. I was now giving the Coast Guard’s “Sea Partner” presentation on marine environmental conservation to children at the base’s two schools three times a week, presenting programs and assisting scout groups with merit badge projects two and three nights a week, in addition to my weekly article. I had even taped seven 30-second Nature Boy spots on the base radio station, with a Tarzan yell and jungle sounds created by the public affairs staff.
As Earth Day approached on April 20, I decided to put all my activism to the test and see if folks really understood what I was talking about. I received permission to organize a base-wide clean-up and recycling event that would require the participation of almost every command on base. It took five weeks of begging, borrowing, and compromise but when Earth Day arrived more than 200 volunteers joined together and collected over 14 tons of trash throughout the base. Even the base commander showed up with his kids to help. The event was a big success.
It was amusing that I could not walk anywhere on base
without someone recognizing me and saying “Hey, aren’t you
By May the war was winding down. America had faced little
resistance and had taken Baghdad in short order. It was pretty clear
to us that the possibility of our heading into the conflict was getting
smaller and smaller as the days went by. Turkey had refused us any access
through their country and many troops were actually rotating home. It
would not be long before we were heading home as well. I was ready.
On May 7 we boarded the plane and flew back to Langley Air Force Base in Maryland, where we were met by hundreds of happy families, supporters and the press. It was good to be back in America. But I wasn’t home yet.
During the conflict I had been selected for an officer’s commission and would be headed directly to the U. S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. I was to report there three days after being released from Port Security Unit 305. Three days. I drove home to Delaware said hi to the family and left again.
My experience at the Coast Guard Academy was…that’s another story. Let’s just say that after weeks of push-ups, screaming and fear, I survived and am officially the oldest Ensign in the U. S. Coast Guard.
From the Academy I was to report to my new unit, Maritime Safety and Security Team 91102, or MSST as they are referred, one of seven highly specialized Coast Guard units assembled in the wake of 9/11 to protect our coasts from terrorist threat. I was to report to the unit, based on the Virginia/North Carolina border in three days. Three days. Here we go again.
To function within the MSST, I was required to attend the five-week law enforcement boarding officer school in Yorktown, Virginia. I was to report in ten days.
I graduated from the school at Yorktown on August 14 and was released from active duty. It had been almost seven months since I left the civilian world. The war was officially over and I had done my part.
There were many heroes in this war, soldiers and sailors who gave their lives, serving their country. They will never be forgotten. In my experience, I had my heroes too. You may not ever hear about them, but they also have a place in my heart: the guy who cut my lawn every other week just because; the staff of Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge who sent me jellybeans and who’s encouragement gave me something to look forward to; a wife who handled a three-year old and a five-year old alone in new surroundings, never complaining, and my Fish and Wildlife family who sent me letters and e-mails of encouragement and friendship. These are my heroes and I can never thank them enough.
Proud to have served and happy to be home.
Jonathan Schafler, the manager of Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. can be reached at 302-684-8419.
The Minerals Management Service continues to support the
war effort at home with its Adopt a Soldier campaign. The agency’s
Gulf of Mexico regional office in New Orleans, through its employee
association, has taken the lead in this campaign and has adopted several
soldiers serving in the Middle East. The employee association also is
conducting fundraisers through the sale of “Support our troops”
pins and flags.
By Randall Henry, Editor, BLM Arizona State Office
The BLM Arizona State Office has an employee that truly felt devotion and devastation during this time of peril for our nation. Susie Cruz, an information receptionist with the BLM Arizona State Office, simultaneously had her daughter Valerie, and son-in-law both deployed with the U.S. Army to defend our country overseas in Iraq.
“The term war can be used in a variety if meanings,
but when it affects your own family it really hits home,” said
Cruz. “I knew the war would affect my family after September 11,
2001, and at that moment of hearing the World Trade Center was being
attacked I felt our nation would go to war.”
Even with the hardship of her family members at
war, Cruz understands the sacrifice it takes to keep our nation fighting
for freedom for all.
Jay Slack, field supervisor of the FWS South Florida Field Office in Vero Beach, at left, introduces Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Aaron Klipstine to the field office staff following his return from Iraq. Klipstine, of Sebastian, Fla., received regular "support" packages from the staff of the Vero Beach office while he was deployed. "We didn't know what we could do to show our collective support for what this young man and so many others like him were doing in that far-off land," said Slack. "Our office put together four packages that included a variety of personal items from gum and chips to tissues and a camera." Klipstine said he received more then he could handle and was happy to share his packages with his fellow Marines. He was one of two local Marines "adopted" by the field office. The other Marine received similar "support" packages. Klipstine has less then a year to go in the Marine Corps and is interested in a career in environmental law enforcement.