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Author Explains Why Coast Guard is "America's Forgotten Heroes"

Author Explains Why Coast Guard is "America's Forgotten Heroes"
What, exactly, does the United States Coast Guard do? We discuss the new book Rescue Warriors: The U.S. Coast Guard, America's Forgotten Heroes. Author David Helvarg talks about the role the Coast Guard plays in protecting America's waterways and coastlines. We also discuss how the mission of the Coast Guard has changed since 9/11, and learn what role the San Diego "Coasties" play in our community.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

DOUG MYRLAND (Guest Host): I'm Doug Myrland and you're listening to These Days in San Diego. In this segment we'll speak to author David Helvarg about his new book "Rescue Warriors: The U.S. Coast Guard, America's Forgotten Heroes," about the role the Coast Guard plays in protecting America's waterways and coastlines, and we'll also talk about the mission of the Coast Guard and how that's changed since 9/11. And, David Helvarg, welcome to KPBS.


DAVID HELVARG (Author): Thank you, Doug.

MYRLAND: I understand you lived in Ocean Beach for a number of years?

HELVARG: Yeah, I was ten years down there by the water and I've been peripherally involved in one rescue where the Coast Guard had a helicopter off shore. Thought I'd try and find a good book to read about them, never did. Eventually, I had to write my own.

MYRLAND: And, boy, did you write a comprehensive book. I mean, that's one thing that really struck me about your book is that it's – it covers many aspects of the Coast Guard, both its history and its recent history. And you really weave a lot of stories throughout the book, of individual members of the Coast Guard, what their lives are like, what their day-to-day life aboard ship is like. How did you figure out how to structure this book because it's not linear in terms of time exactly. You don't start in 1803 and end up in 2007 or 2008. You move back and forth.

HELVARG: Well, I wanted to get out with them a lot. And, you know, getting on the water and in the water was certainly a driver. And I'd find as you go look at one thing, it connects to another. I simply, you know, wrote one history chapter—and it's such a rich history going back 220 years that by the time I reached chapter length, I'd only gotten to 1950 and the modern Coast Guard so I sort of was forced to put the aviators history in their chapter and the surf men who go back to the historic, you know, coastal surf watches and lighthouse keepers – and it's sort of natural. I mean, there's such a sense that these guys and gals have been well salted for 200 years, that it's very hard not to be out with them and appreciate the history behind them as mariners, as water men and women.


MYRLAND: Talk a little bit, if you would, about the history of where the Coast Guard's been administered and how it ends up where it is today, which is not really the same as the other branches of the military. It's out of Homeland Security. But it's been in several different government departments over the decades.

HELVARG: It's kind of an institutional orphan. Its roots go back to Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of Treasury, set up a lighthouse service in 1789 and then the Revenue Cutter Service the next year. So it gives it both its military and civilian bent and just in the course of their daily operations, they've taken on this unique role of being both an armed service and a law enforcement agency under Titles 10 and 14, they both are military and civilian and pretty much do anything related to water, be it fresh, salty or brackish. Their kind of genetic makeup drives them to be lifesavers. They respond to about 125 calls a day, and rescue 15 people a day. But they're also doing aids to navigation, taking care of, you know, all the navigational – the weather bouys. They're doing safety and security in terms of our ports, in terms of ship inspections, pollution response. They're the people you call for an oil spill or if a right whale or marine mammal gets entangled. So it goes back to really, as I say, to the founding of the republic. And Hamilton instructed them, his first letter of instruction to the Revenue Cutter Service was to – he said, Americans are free men and you're not to approach them with a haughty attitude but be respectful and professional. And I almost, in writing the book, worried that my kind of style of loud improvisation didn't go well with their quiet professionalism but under all that quiet professionalism there's a real bunch of very competent thrill seekers. I talk about this mix of kind of altruism and adrenaline.

MYRLAND: There's a real journalistic bent to your writing because while you're extremely respectful of the people in the Coast Guard and the work they do, you don't hesitate to take on some of the controversies, especially toward the end of the book when you talk about the relationship with Northrop and building the new ships. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that very recent history and where you think we're going to come out in the end.

HELVARG: Yeah, the chapter called Deep Water's about this major program, a fleet expansion in which the Coast Guard essentially gave control of their fleet over to the contractors, to Northrop and to Lockheed. And there was a certain, I think, the two drivers that I talk about, one is that they had tried to lobby congress on a – they call push and pull lobbying, push lobbying being simply arguing for a billion dollars for a new fleet of buoy tenders, arguing it's in the public interest to protect the – our shipping and recreational boaters to make sure they can get in and out of our harbors. And they didn't get much response; they got $200 million funded out of the billion they needed. So they looked around and they looked at the Department of Defense, which they're not a part of, and how these Tier 1 defense contractors bring in billions, you know, whenever these military systems go in a kind of cost spiral, out of control cost spirals. They have these lobbyists and they essentially handed, you know, went to a couple of top tier defense contractors and said why don't you build us a fleet. And there was a certain naitivity (sic), an obvious naitivity, I think, of the Coast Guard leadership that they saw these big companies with a lot of influence on Capitol Hill and they thought they're big, gray and have fins on their tops, we must be swimming with dolphins. And that lasted about as long as it took for the contractors to extend these 110 foot cutters to 123 foot and the Coast Guard discovered that they couldn't sail. They were boats that wouldn't float.

MYRLAND: Well, and it's almost symbolic of a lot of the history of the Coast Guard that you outline where they've always had to make do with less than optimal kinds of vessels.

HELVARG: And they are, they're, I mean, as effective and professional as they are, they've got the 37th oldest fleet of the top 40 naval forces in the world. They're slightly more modern than the Mexican and Philippine navy. And I think the part of the failure that drove them to this bad contracting deal where they let the sea lions guard the salmon pens, as it were, with deep water is that they are so obsolete, their materials, and, as you say, they're – It's almost become a mantra to do more with less. And I'm saying why can't you do more with more. You've got a situation and it kind of goes into the security issue where on 9/11 the Coast Guard had been through a decade of financial cutbacks. They were facing another ten percent cut. And since that day, and it's a day on which they helped evacuate half a million people from Manhattan Island—it was the largest maritime evacuation in history. And looking at the maps of Coast Guard assets on September 10, and September 12, 2001, it's like a belt being cinched tight around the continental U.S. So they went to a war footing and their budget increased from five to nine billion dollars over the last seven years but almost all of that's gone to security, to port security and counter terrorism. They've gone from 300 to 3,000 armed responders. And the problem is that shipping continues to increase, people move to the coast, hurricane seasons continue to intensify. All the – They talk about doing safety, security and stewardship. They got increased funding for security but safety and stewardship is at risk by the lack of – you know, you've got a Coast Guard that has 44,000 active duty people, 42,000 and 8,000 reservists. They're about the size of the NYPD. I think that, you know, if we saw billions more to go to the safety and stewardship side and to expand their capabilities, it would be money well spent.

MYRLAND: Well, and one of the most striking parts of your book is talking about what they did during Hurricane Katrina. You know, despite the fact that they are continually doing more with less, I mean, they rescued way more people than anybody else did.

HELVARG: They rescued over 33,000 people that week. I mean, it's 15 a day until that day in 2005 when they surged in and pulled people off of rooftops and brought their boats from throughout the country and got people out of flood zones. It was very interesting. It was – They really – And this is when I decided to write the book. I was down there after Katrina and traveling around and seeing that they were really the only part of government that was working there. Part of it, as I said, they're kind of institutional orphans in Washington but when they were moved from – in 2003, from the Department of Transportation to Homeland Security, their friends on Capitol Hill wrote a special Section 888 of the Homeland Security Act, saying the Secretary could not take any functions away from the Coast Guard, basically couldn't interfere. So the Coast Guard's very experienced with pulling people out of water, what they do every hurricane season, and what they did in Katrina, moved their resources out of the way and as the storm struck, they just surged in on the back side of the hurricane and began saving lives. And as one of the heroes of Katrina told me, he says, we improvise. You know, you don't wait for a chain of command. You're in a situation, if you don't know how to do it, you figure it out and you act. And they have that. What compensates for their small size is they have constant training. The old saying used to be in the rescue service, that you have to go out, you don't have to come back. Now they have constant training so that they do it safely but they still do it. They go out, they trust all levels of command. So there was a Chief Warrant Officer who was essentially the Coast Guard man in charge for the first four days of Katrina and, you know, kind of that bias for action is very impressive. And a lot of ex-marines and army folks I've talked to in the Coast Guard, they'll say you get here and you're waiting around for orders and, at a certain point, you realize they're not coming; they expect you to take action, take the initiative.

MYRLAND: Well, you had a chance to get to know a lot of people in the Coast Guard, ride along on a lot of vessels. And I think one of the things that I keep seeing pop up in your book is the idea that the motivation for people who get into the Coast Guard is a little different than the motivation for people who get into the military. You keep using the fire fighter analogy or the police officer analogy. Can you talk a little bit about some of those personal characteristics that you observed?

HELVARG: Sure. I mean, it's funny you say different from the military because they are. Even though they're not in DOD, they're an armed service. They're the fifth forgotten armed service. I was flying over the arctic on the C-130 and the pilot was telling me the morning after 9/11 his wife turned to him in bed and said, this is so terrible, I'm so glad you're not in the military. But it is a different motivation. A lot of young people I talked to at the training center in Cape May, New Jersey, at the academy in New London, say they want to serve their country but they want to be in a service that saves lives rather than takes them. I talked to the captain of the Monroe, one of the cutters up there in Kodiak, Alaska, when I was visiting last January. He says he asks all his new crew members what their parents do. He says a really high proportion, like ten percent, say that their mother's a professional nurse. So, he says, so here you have a parent who's a professional nurturer and they want to do that but they also want the adventure. So, like I say, it's this interesting mix of patriotism, altruism, adrenaline. And it may be what we need in the future. I mean, in the past – and I think one of the reasons we don't hear more of the Coast Guard, in the past we sent our young men off to fight and die in wars, and those who survive come back to become our tribal clan- and national-leaders. Well, today it's a much more crowded planet and we're not only facing – we're facing an unknown range of terrorism, of intentional actions, of industrial accidents, of natural disasters that are expanded by climate change. There's a fifth coast emerging in the Arctic that the Coast Guard now has to take responsibility for, and all this sort of unknowable range of threats on a planet that's two-thirds salt water. These guys and gals are perfect for it. The only thing they lack is size and public support.

MYRLAND: I do want to have time to just mention some of the activities of the Coast Guard in San Diego. So in the two minutes that we have left, could you tell us just a little bit about the Coast Guard right here?

HELVARG: Sure. You've got a lot of port security because the navy's here and the Coast Guard MSST teams, their Maritime Safety and Security Teams, are on the water all the time. You also have, naturally, search and rescue. You have drug interdiction that they've gone down into Mexico and actually been involved in major stings with the DEA. And you have PACTAC, you have a Pacific Tactical Team on the Marine base that is Coasties who ride along on navy ships and other ships to fight drug running in the Pacific and now fight pirates off of Somalia. So full range of activities plus, of course, all your navigation buoys they take care of.

MYRLAND: Yeah, I didn't realize that until I read your book, that the Coast Guard takes care of all those buoys. I have a friend who has a sailboat and I was visiting him a couple of weeks ago and noticing all the buoys and you think about how many are there in the ocean that the Coast Guard has to take care of?

HELVARG: There are 60,000 major navigational buoys and a lot of small kind of navigational aids. And they have these…

MYRLAND: And every one of them a maintenance problem, right?

HELVARG: And the Coast Guard expects to – that they be operational at a 99.8% response. So the result, of course is – I went out last January out of the Golden Gate on one of their big buoy tenders to fix some buoys. They thought they were in the window between storm fronts and they weren't, so we were in 20-foot seas and everybody's got – taking on a tinge of green as we sort of fought up the north Pacific to fix some buoys that had gone adrift off Humboldt. And we flew in after Hurricane Ike and, again, the buoy tenders was (sic) out even as the helicopters were flying search and rescue.

MYRLAND: I learned a new term in that chapter. It was the buoy that was discrept.

HELVARG: Yeah, in – indescrept. And they've got their whole language and nomenclature. I mean, it really is its own culture except that when anthropologists talk about cultures they talk about the rejection of the other. And in Coast Guard culture, it's really, you know, willing to give your life so that others may live.

MYRLAND: Well, you took a couple of years out of your life to work on this book. Are you suffering from some withdrawal symptoms? Are you…?

HELVARG: Yeah, I said at the end of the book, I mean, I'm working on my – I have a nonprofit on ocean conservation. I like the – I've got a chapter called Duck Scrubbers about their environmental work. But I'd also -- You know, I'd had a personal loss in the course of working on the book and I realized that there was some comfort working with these people because there really is this humanitarian sense, you know, that these people are there to help others and that helped me as I was working on it. And at the end, I said I – last page of the book, I say I'm going to miss these honorable guys and gals.

MYRLAND: Well, David, we really, really appreciate the work you did for the two years on the book and I'm sure everybody will enjoy it. It's called "Rescue Warriors: The U.S. Coast Guard, America's Forgotten Heroes." Our guest has been David Helvarg. You're listening to These Days in San Diego.