Coastie for a day, hero forever

Coast Guard District 8 NewsThey’ve served with distinction since 1790. Today, they are responsible for 11 missions that keep America and its waterways safe and secure. U.S. Coast Guard crewmembers have served their country with honor, respect and devotion to duty since the first revenue cutter took to the water, but if there’s one trait that could sum up the reputation of the entire service, it might just be courage.

On Nov. 7, 2011, the crewmembers of Coast Guard Aviation Training Center Mobile, Ala., met a person whose bravery matched and exceeded their own.

Luke Wiedeman has lived with a brain tumor for more than three years. He’s been through tests, scans, surgeries, chemotherapy, and through it all, he’s kept his smile. Even when dealing with procedures that are far from comfortable. Luke’s mom, Janet Wiedeman, wrote the following in his blog:

“We’ve met numerous medical professionals over the last few days. They always ask Luke if he has any questions. He usually has at least one serious question plus his favorite: “Tallahassee is a city in Florida. How do you spell that?” You can tell a lot about someone by how they respond to a 9-year-old boy’s jokes. In case you’re wondering … the answer is t-h-a-t.”

The summer of 2011, Luke encountered many dramatic ups and downs. From bad days that included long rounds of radiation treatments to good days like the day Luke received news that the local Make-A-Wish chapter was granting his wish to become a Coast Guard rescue swimmer.

“He’s so much braver than I am,” said Richard Wiedeman, Luke’s father. “He’s been through a lot, especially this summer. He had to undergo doses of radiation daily for 31-straight days. We didn’t get the results we were hoping for as a result of the therapy, and for the first time in my life, I felt discouraged and thought he might have given up the fight. That is until he realized that he was going to get to go take part in his wish and be in the Coast Guard for a few days. It turned him around.”

Make-A-Wish members contacted ATC Mobile to request their help in fulfilling Luke’s desire to become an Aviation Survival Technician. A month before the long plane trip to the training center, Luke was already hearing from his new shipmates.

“Soon after we knew his wish was going to be granted, he started getting emails from some of the pilots at ATC, and some rescue swimmers from other air stations who offered words of encouragement and ideas of what rescue swimmers do and what the Coast Guard does,” said his father. “A dozen or half a dozen guys were corresponding with him and Luke wanted to respond back and keep the correspondence going. It was a lot!”

One of his constant correspondents, Cmdr. David Saunders, operations division chief for ATC Mobile, couldn’t help but be impressed by Luke’s knowledge and passion for the Coast Guard.

“I had to be on my ‘A’ game talking to him, because he’s very sharp, he’s done his research and knows his history, so he’s got some tough questions,” said Saunders.

“I really like the idea of young boys and girls wanting to be a part of this organization,” said Saunders. “I asked his dad: What made Luke decide he wanted to be interested in the Coast Guard? And his dad didn’t know either. It’s just something he had a passion for at an early age.”

Luke’s wish to become a rescue swimmer resonated with Saunders. Being from the same part of the country as the Wiedemans, Saunders knows how important it is for the Coast Guard to reach out to regions where they are generally unknown.

“I think it’s important for people to know who we are and what we’re about. In this case it was unique, because Luke is coming from Utah,” said Saunders. “Being from Colorado, that part of the country doesn’t get much exposure to the Coast Guard. His desire to be a rescue swimmer of all the things a young boy could want to do, we just thought that was awesome.”

When the Wiedeman family made the 1,000-plus mile trip to the training center, they certainly had ideas about how their son would be participating in his training as an honorary Coast Guard rescue swimmer. But, what the Coast Guardsmen of ATC had planned far surpassed what they anticipated.

“We just thought we’d go, meet some personnel, shake some hands, maybe get a tour of the facility, some words of encouragement … our expectations were greatly exceeded,” said Luke’s father.

For the first day of the training, Coast Guard ASTs ran Luke through pool drills and demonstrations of rescue techniques and equipment, having him try on each piece of their gear and explaining how each is used to either keep them safe or assist in a rescue.

Afterwards, Luke was treated to the high-tech flight and aircrew weapons simulators that are unique to ATC. Trained pilots helped guide him through the controls and procedures for take-offs and landings.

Luke’s first day didn’t end there.

“[Vice Adm. Robert Parker, Coast Guard Atlantic Area commander] was on his way in on one of our 144’s,” said Saunders. “We made a call while he was in the air and asked him if he’d be interested in talking to Luke, which he was. It was a real highlight to Luke’s day.”

Upon landing, Parker walked over to Luke and his family and talked to them about their visit. Before leaving them to their tour of the training center, Parker gave Luke his challenge coin.

The second day of his wish, Luke was able to put his new skills to the test. ATC had orchestrated a search-and-rescue demonstration with Luke as the star. A boat had been arranged for his family to watch from as Luke was lowered into the water of Mobile Bay from an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, to rescue two rescue swimmers who were feigning distress.

Luke successfully loaded the two into the helicopter’s rescue basket and, lastly, was hoisted himself.

Upon returning to the training center, Luke was welcomed by a round of applause and hearty handshakes from every available crewmember of ATC. The celebration culminated in a ceremony where Luke received a letter of appreciation from the unit.

“We didn’t think he’d get to participate in the training the way he did, participate in the mission like he did,” said Luke’s father. “Just the way the whole base turned out to make Luke, and us, feel welcome. It was awesome.”

Luke’s arrival had been planned months before he even set foot on the military installation. His favorite food had been researched and prepared by the staff of the mess hall. During his stay, crewmembers were allowed to wear green undershirts with their uniforms. Green being Luke’s favorite color. To say that the personnel of ATC wanted Luke to enjoy his wish might be an understatement. It was an effort that wasn’t lost on his parents.

“It was the most incredible thing I think we’ve ever experienced,” said Luke’s father. “It exceeded our expectations the way the Coast Guard was so accommodating, so welcoming, so professional. I know for me, personally, what it did was give me peace of mind that no matter what happens with Luke’s situation that he had this and this was what he wanted more than anything else. For those three or four days that we were there, it was the happiest I’ve seen him, probably ever. You can’t put that into words.”

Even after saying his final goodbyes to a host of new friends and pen pals, Luke’s day was about to get better.

By coincidence, the hotel the Wiedeman family was staying at was hosting a command conference for the Coast Guard. As the family made their way through the lobby on their way to dinner, they were recognized by Adm. Parker, whom they’d just met the day before.

“He recognized us and happened to be with [Adm. Robert Papp, commandant of the Coast Guard] at the time and he said, ‘Oh, here’s someone I’d like you to meet.’ He introduced Luke to the commandant,” said Luke’s father. “Luke said ‘Sir, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I am not sure what the commandant is.’ I kind of whispered in his ear that this is the admiral in charge of the whole Coast Guard and Coast Guard operations.”

“It was kind of a humorous moment. [Papp] offered some words of encouragement. Just a great guy,” said Luke’s father. “I kind of explained to Luke a little bit later that this guy probably talks to President Obama on a regular basis. It was a real highlight.”

Coast Guard history is saturated with heroes that met immense obstacles and overcame them. Joshua James, Bernard Webber or Douglas Munro could tell tales of battling adversity that, if compared to those that Luke Wiedeman might tell, could sound vaguely similar. And, just as the Coast Guard praises and elevates its heroes, the members of ATC felt very at home honoring Luke.

“This really reinforces what we’re all about,” said Saunders. “This benefits us just as much as it benefits him. It really brings us together as a community, as aviators and it recalibrates what we’re here for. Whether you’re on an aircraft or a cutter, whatever, we’re all Coast Guardsmen, and we’re all out here to do the business of serving the American people.”

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2 Comments

  1. Laura, a Coastie's Mom says:

    I’m a cryin’ mess after reading that. What an awesome story. I wish there were pictures!!

  2. cgnews says:

    Photo’s for many stories, including this one, can be found at either http://Facebook.com/CoastGuardNews or http://gplus.to/CoastGuardNews