Shipmates, the heart of the Coast Guard

PETALUMA, Calif. - Rear Adm. Joseph "Pepe" Castillo, the 11th Coast Guard District commander (left) and Master Chief Petty Officer Richard Wolfe (right) stand beside Petty Officer 3rd Class Kyle Vrable, a Whitehall, Penn. native and student at Coast Guard Training Center Petaluma, after Vrable was honored as the first recipient of the Seaman Apprentice William R. Flores award, Wednesday, April 20, 2011. The award was recently renamed in honor of William R. Flores, a Coast Guard hero who died trying to save his shipmates from the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn when it sank Jan. 28, 1980. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

FIreman Kyle Vrable, the first recipient of the Seaman Apprentice William R. Flores award

Shipmate, in the Coast Guard, is a term that goes beyond endearment. It embodies the bond forged by sailors who serve on isolated ships in the vast expansions of the world’s seas. Shipmates are born out of arduous duty and live forever in the shared memories of their fellow Coast Guardsmen.

The title shipmate is a neither taken in vain nor spoken haphazardly, and it is the service’s highest compliment to be called a good one. The yeoman instructors at Coast Guard Training Center Petaluma work to instill the newest members of the service with the spirit of the great shipmates who have gone before them. It is in that tradition the instructors established the Seaman Apprentice William R. Flores Award for outstanding leadership to be presented six times a year for each class convening.

This award was formally known as the Outstanding Shipmate award, and was renamed in honor of 19-year-old William Ray “Billy” Flores, a Coast Guard hero who sacrificed his life saving his shipmates during a collision that became the worst peacetime disaster in Coast Guard history. He embodied the spirit of being a true shipmate.

It was only a few months after graduating from boot camp that Flores would heed the call to duty aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn. The 180-foot cutter collided with the 605-foot tanker Capricorn near the entrance of Tampa Bay, Fla. Jan. 28, 1980. As the cutter was sinking, Flores and fellow crewmembers threw lifejackets to their shipmates who had jumped into the water. While others were abandoning ship, Flores remained aboard the cutter to help trapped crewmembers and comfort those who were injured and disoriented.

Eventually, the Blackthorn capsized, and tragically, Flores was one of 23 Coast Guardsmen who died. He was posthumously awarded the Coast Guard Medal on Sept. 16, 2000, for his selfless courage and heroic actions.

“The renaming of the Outstanding Shipmate award to the Seaman Apprentice William Flores award in the yeoman schoolhouse was done to bring a little more significance to what we believe the term ‘shipmate’ is all about,” said Master Chief Petty Officer Richard Wolfe, the yeoman school chief. “The term shipmate embodies honor, respect, devotion to duty, commitment, and excellence, traits that Seaman Apprentice William R. Flores showed that tragic night in 1980.”

Fireman Kyle E. Vrable, a Whitehall, Penn., native, was presented with the first Seaman Apprentice William R. Flores award in a ceremony presided by Adm. Joseph “Pepe” Castillo, the 11th Coast Guard District commander, April 20, 2011.

Vrable was nominated to receive the award by the students he serves with.

“Vrabel never leaves anyone behind,” said Seaman Sally Smith, a yeoman student at Petaluma. “He always has a smile on his face and is an outstanding shipmate.”

“He will drop anything to be there for someone else,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Emily Mears, another classmate of Vrable.

“We wanted to do something to help keep the memory of Flores alive, and the yeoman school staff wanted this award to have a deeper meaning and something the student would carry with pride,” said Wolfe. “The characteristics that Fireman Vrabel displayed are the same type of traits we are looking for in all of our Guardians.”

For more information on William Flores, visit the Coast Guard Historian’s website:

Information on the Coast Guard Medal can be found here:

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