Story by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cynthia Oldham
On the 20th anniversary of his childhood departure from Panama, Coast Guard Petty Officer Luis Perez found himself in a familiar but immensely faraway place.
When he was five years old, Perez moved with his family from Puerto Rico to Panama where his father was a contractor at Howard Air Force Base. His family lived in Panama City, where Perez would often watch lights shining in the distance from the long line of ships waiting to transit the canal.
Little did Perez know, exactly twenty years later to the day, he would be on a ship crossing the canal – as a crewmember aboard the Boston-based Coast Guard Cutter Spencer.
Perez was 10 years old in January of 1997 when his family departed Panama and moved to the United States.
When he was old enough, Perez enlisted in the Coast Guard as a reservist where he served at Coast Guard Sector Saint Petersburg while he attended college.
“I joined the Coast Guard because I wanted to be part of a service with missions I am passionate about and directly serves the American people,” said Perez.
Upon graduating with his bachelor’s degree in history, Perez accepted temporary active duty orders to the Coast Guard’s Maritime Law Enforcement Academy, in South Carolina, where he served for three and a half years.
From there, Perez went on to provide support to units at the Special Missions Training Center in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and then at Port Security Unit 309, a rapid deployment force based in Port Clinton, Ohio.
Recently, Perez was offered the opportunity to integrate into full active duty and he seized the opportunity by accepting orders aboard the 270-foot Coast Guard Cutter Spencer.
As a member of the support team aboard Spencer, Perez plays an important behind-the-scenes role. He is an expert in coordinating financial logistics and making certain the cutter maintains necessary supplies and services to carry out Spencer’s missions, which include law enforcement, marine environmental protection, and homeland security.
“I chose to be a storekeeper because it’s a career that allows me to diversify on a number of career paths. It also provides me the opportunity to assist all other rates with logistical support to get the mission done,” Perez said.
Perez is also a qualified boarding team member and serves as a Spanish translator for migrant interdiction and non-compliant vessel pursuit operations.
The Spencer’s captain, Cmdr. Peter Niles, said Coast Guardsman like Petty Officer Perez is what makes the service so great.
Going through the Panama Canal is a bucket-list item for a lot of people, but seeing the transit though Perez’s eyes, after learning his history, made the crew proud to have him as a shipmate.
“It is easy to forget we are a melting pot of society, if we all take an extra moment to learn more about our shipmates, something not Coast Guard related, we see just how diverse and remarkable we all are as individuals, as we did with Petty Officer Perez’s story of perseverance,” Niles said.
When he looks into his future, Perez sees himself serving in the Coast Guard for years to come. He plans to eventually couple his life and service experience with his history degree to become a teacher.
“Had it not been for the Coast Guard, I would have not been able to return to the canal – a journey very few in this world can take,” he said. “Had it not been for living in Panama as a child, I would have not been so bold to take risks and embark in adventures like I have had in the Coast Guard.”
The day he went back to Panama, Perez saw his past and present come together, and said it is his Coast Guard experiences and memories of Panama that will guide him into future endeavors.