A true celebration of Coast Guard life & service

by LT Dave French

This year’s annual Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival is over, but one of the most important events every year is the National Memorial Service held in Escanaba Park to honor the Coast Guard men and women who passed in the line of duty during the previous year.

This year the public, the Coast Guard and festival organizers gathered to honor the lives and service of the four-man crew of Air Station Barber Point, Hawaii’s CG-6505 and Cmdr. Keith Willis, Commanding Officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma.

During the ceremony, Ninth District Chaplain, Lt. Cmdr. Randy Williams stepped up to the microphone and delivered a stunningly powerful message of inspiration to the crowd of hundreds, if not thousands in town to enjoy the celebration of everything Coast Guard.

Below are his simple words, which serve as a selfless reminder of Honor, Respect and Devotion to Duty.

“The other day, a neighbor of mine wanted to know where I was off to this time. I told him I was going to Grand Haven to give a homily at the memorial service during the annual Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival. His response is one that I’ve heard before, ‘don’t you get tired of doing memorial services?’

I guess there should be a ‘yes’ in my response somewhere. After all, a memorial service implies a tragedy, a loss to somebody or revisiting some painful memories. But, I couldn’t respond with a simple ‘yes’ and move on. Instead I said, ‘Not really.’

The look on his face suggested that more explanation was need. I told him about the caliber of people that I do memorial services for. How they fit the definition of hero in every sense of the word. I told him how my life is enriched by the kind of extraordinary people I run across in the Coast Guard.

Last year, I’ve was privileged to preside over the funeral of AMT [Josh] Nichols in Buffalo, N.Y. I got to hear about his selfless life and how he lived life to the fullest, view the photos of his family and friends. But, I also got to see something you just don’t see anywhere else.

Josh gave his life in a helicopter crash while on a training mission off the coast of Hawaii. Buffalo was not his hometown, but that of his wife, who held his funeral there where she would be surround by the love of her family and long time family friends.

There, were a few people from his Command in Hawaii who were able to attend. Still, a few others who came from various places around the country, but one entire side of this very large church was filled with blue-suiters, people from the local Sector and other Coast Guard units; not fellow aviators who shared the camaraderie of same rate, not people who knew him personally, but just the common bond of being a Guardian.

I had arrived at the church a long time prior to the funeral and was unaware of the activities outside the church. So, when I preceded the casket down the aisle and out the front doors of the church, I wasn’t prepared for the surreal scene that awaited me. I was like something from a movie scene as local law enforcement and fire department had a tremendous presence paying their respects too.

The streets were closed to public traffic. People lined the sidewalks and grassy areas near the church. The helicopter flyover for a fellow crewman was impressive and I was left in awe flooded with mixed emotions: Saddened to see such a young widow with their young baby; yet for me, it is a moment that will be etched in my mind forever as I stood the proudest I’d ever worn this or any other uniform.

No, I don’t get tired of doing memorial services.

Another memorial service that will be forever in my mind is one I presided over in Duluth, MN. Some 40 years ago, three Guardians risked their lives, and one gave his, on during a stormy night trying to save some kids who didn’t understand the danger playing on a pier. Each year they hold a memorial service for Petty Officer Culbertson, but this one was special…his kids, now in midlife, were just learning about their father and coming to the first memorial service they’d ever been to for him.

To enhance their understanding, the unit there had contacted a fellow Guardian who almost perished that night too. A decorated Coast Guardsmen, he retold the story for the first time to his own family and to the kids and grandchildren of his lost shipmate. At the end of the service the mother of the children who the Guardians were looking for came forward and for the first time, she could grieve with the family who lost their dad, say thank you and I’m sorry.

No, I don’t get tired of doing memorial services.

Every year we remember the crew of the Escanaba who are symbolic of the sacrifices made by every Guardian. We learn from them. They set the bar high for us to follow today.

I have the privilege of putting on a uniform that I don’t deserve to wear and see firsthand the incredible risk our Guardians take every day. I’m privy to the calls that our Guardians are going out on everyday. I am able to ‘high five’ it with a crew and hear the OIC, with a glint in his eye, when he says, ‘we saved 3 lives yesterday!’ I get to cry if they don’t get there soon enough. ‘Why?’ my neighbor asked, ‘do young people do this for people they don’t know and risk everything?’

Well, I certainly can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you what I think. Besides wearing this unique uniform, I have something no one else has on theirs; a cross on my shoulder board that identifies me as a Christian chaplain.

As a follower of Christ, aside from the rich spiritual experience I gain from Him; He’s a great leader to study and perhaps the greatest influencer of our time. Our Western, Gregorian calendar places Him right at the center of human history by numbering our years 2009 A.D. (Latin for in the year of our Lord).

Here are a couple of things He taught that I believe influence our values today:
1. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
2. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, than he lay down his life for a friend.’

He should know; He gave His life, no one took it from Him. Likewise, our Guardians don’t lose their lives, they love what they do, they risk their lives and some give their lives in that service.

‘I could give my life for one of my family members, but a stranger?’ my friend said.

Strangers? Well, that depends on how you look at it. I’ve found that if I can look past the color of one’s skin, past their religion, (or lack of it), if I can look past ones politics or morals that may differ from mine, and look in your eyes, hear you, get to know you… you’re not a stranger…you’re a friend and my neighbor.

Many of you have, at one time or another; have offered to lay down your life for a friend…like the Escanaba crew. Some of you will tomorrow, and others of you may be too young to know what to do with your life…you’ll join me wearing a uniform you don’t deserve to wear and serve a country you don’t deserve to live it. Some of you will support people in the uniform…there’s a million ways to do that. Our mates understand…no poor choice of words…accept the call on our lives to be gone and to serve.

What about you? Have you found something that you would lay down your life for?

So, do I get tired of doing memorial services? Yes, they are sad…but No I don’t get tired of honoring these extraordinary people!

There’s coming a time when I’ll hang up this uniform. I may still do funerals and memorial services…but I’m sure that none will be like these. Heavenly Father, You give us purpose in life. Thank you. You make life worth living and dying for. Thank you. You give us people like Josh Nichols’ and the [Ray] O’Malley’s of the world. Thank you. You laid down your life for me. Thank you. If one person here today is inspired by the lives we memorialize here today. Thank you.”

Editors Note:  The above article is from the Coast Guard’s Ninth District Blog: Your Great Lakes Coast Guard. We appreciate them allowing us to share it with our readers.

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