Honor the fallen Coast Guardsmen

Each day, many of us who reside or work in our nation’s capital walk by the many memorials honoring our fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen. Memorial Day is the time to stop, read their names and thank them for their service. We must never forget that freedom is not free, but is only made possible by the thousands of patriots who stood the watch and selflessly made the greatest of earthly sacrifices to protect our homeland.

As one of the five armed services, the Coast Guard has proudly stood the watch for over 220 years. Whether in peace or wartime, Coast Guardsmen have always served with the knowledge that our chosen profession is hazardous. Our work is difficult, sometimes dangerous. Since 1790, Coast Guardsmen have sacrificed their lives while attempting to rescue others from the perils of the sea. Our heaviest losses were sustained when several of our cutters were torpedoed during wartime while conducting convoy escorts. The names of these Coast Guardsmen are etched on the Coast Guard memorial in Arlington Cemetery. Yet we will never know the names of many of our other lost heroes because prior to 1917, only the name of the lost ship was recorded. Nonetheless, will we never forget these shipmates.

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Whether on cutters and boats, in the air or guarding the shore, these brave men and women have performed countless challenging maritime missions — many so dramatic that they surpass any fictional sea story. But these feats all have one common theme — the willingness of someone to take great personal risk to protect others. After all, that is what Coast Guardsmen do. We protect people on the sea. We protect against threats directed from the sea, and we even protect the sea itself. 

In the past year, our citizens have witnessed the Coast Guard in action like never before. Coast Guardsmen conducting drug and migrant interdictions in the Caribbean instantly transitioned to respond to the devastating Haitian earthquake. Then, with the dust from Haiti still on their boots, they responded with agility to the unprecedented Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and spill. These “all-hands-on-deck” responses demonstrated the value of our unique, versatile and adaptable maritime, multi-mission and military capabilities. While we surged to meet these challenges, we continued to perform our many other persistent missions, just as thousands of Coast Guardsmen are doing today.

The 42,000 active-duty, 8,200 Reserve, 8,000 civilian and 31,000 volunteer Coast Guard Auxiliarists keep a tireless vigil over our nation’s maritime domain, safeguarding our interests on our rivers, securing our ports, protecting our coasts and assuring our high-seas sovereignty. In the flood-ravaged Ohio and Mississippi river valleys, Coast Guard personnel are assisting federal, state and local officials to save our citizens and their homes. On the Great Lakes, Coast Guard icebreakers freed the flow of $2 billion in job-sustaining commerce allowing stevedores, longshoremen, truckers and small businesses to get back to work. Deep in the eastern Pacific Ocean, Coast Guard cutters interdicted “drug subs” packed with tons of cocaine, bound for our shores and streets. 

In the high latitudes of the Bering Sea, Coast Guardsmen are on patrol weathering some of the most challenging conditions imaginable to protect our fishermen and our fish stocks. Others are making preparations for summer operations in the increasingly accessible Arctic Ocean. In the Arabian Gulf, hundreds of Coast Guardsmen are protecting oil platforms that provide 85 percent of the Iraqi people’s revenue. Coast Guardsmen are also serving off the African coast as part of the joint anti-piracy taskforce, and in international ports throughout the world ensuring the safety of cargo before it ships to our ports. In short, you will find Coast Guardsmen operating everywhere you would expect them to be — and in many other places you would not.

Our service is well-aware of our nation’s current economic and budget challenges. But we also know that we must continue to recapitalize our aging fleet of cutters, boats and aircraft, as well as our shore facilities, to ensure that we remain capable of performing our vital maritime missions and responding to national contingencies. Recapitalization is critical to ensuring that our service remains true to our motto — Semper Paratus — Always Ready — well into our third century of service.

So on this Memorial Day, before you resume the busy walk of life, pause at that memorial, participate in a community observance, or simply take time to honor our servicemen and -women, including their families, whose selfless service, sacrifice and eternal vigilance keep our nation safe.

Adm. Papp is the 24th commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.