Heroes By Choice

By Lisa D Healy  


[Despite howling winds and unruly seas, the crew of Coast Guard Station Cape Charles 41502 went in search of a tugboat in distress last January. Officially, the crew of the 41-foot utility boat was not supposed to go out that day. But five Coast Guardsmen, led by their officer-in-charge, volunteered for the mission of mercy.]  

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about heroes. It wasn’t long ago that the country met 45-year Navy veteran Rudy Boesch, long-recognized as a hero in the SEAL community, on the television show “Survivor.” There are more heroes around than most people realize, but because many of us are caught up in our date-book-dictated lives, we don’t often notice the heroic events that happen around us every day.

But many Coast Guardsmen and residents in Cape Charles, a town on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, cleared their calendars for Aug. 30 to welcome five Coast Guard heroes into the elite group of people who’ve performed high acts of bravery.

There weren’t any television cameras to capture the details of the Coast Guardsmen’s bravery during the rescue of three tug boat crewmen during the blizzard on Jan. 25.

Months later, thousands of fans didn’t arrive hours before the ceremony began at Cape Charles’ Palace Theater, like they did for last week’s “Rudypalooza!” No one asked for autographs, and there weren’t any balloons, banners or T-shirts. But the Coast Guardsmen didn’t mind, because these heroes prefer not to be honored that way.

Chief Boatswain’s Mate Joe Habel tried to avoid the limelight at the ceremony for the heroes, encouraging reporters and guests to talk to his boat crew rather than him. The 20-year Coast Guardsman was quick to pass the recognition to his shipmates.

“We were a team,” Habel said. “I wasn’t the only one out there.”

No, he wasn’t.

There were four other boat crew members: Willard Leavelle, a first class machinery technician who kept the engines running on the station’s 41-foot utility boat: Thomas Palmer, a third class boatswain’s mate who helped look for the tug in near-zero visibility and plucked the tug’s crew from the 38-degree water; John Grant, a seaman who worked alongside Palmer as a lookout and helped rescue the survivors from the water; and Matthew Haggerty, a third class boatswain’s mate who was the crew’s navigator. They were all confused over the attention, too.

“We were just going what we’re supposed to do,” Grant said.

But not exactly.

Yes, Coasties do go out in bad weather and perform daring rescues every day. But Jan. 25 was different. It was the worst weather any of the crew had every seen in this part of country.

Years ago, Coasties were expected to perform rescues regardless of the weather. But Cmdr. Ted Harrop, Commander Group Hampton Roads, explained to the audience, at the awards ceremony that expectation is no longer true.

“Nearly 20 years ago, most Coast Guard stations and units had a placard or sign posted somewhere at the unit that contained the rescuer’s motto, and in those days that motto read, ‘You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.’ When a crew responded in severe weather conditions and made it back safely, the Coast Guard simply recognized their heroic actions without much more ado than pinning a medal on them.

That was the end of the story. Rightfully so, we have taken those placards down and replaced that old motto with a new motto. And the new motto is that, ‘You don’t have to go out, but you have to come back.’”

There is a commandant instruction that sets limits on when a 41-foot utility boat can be used for search and rescue missions. Rescue attempts are restricted in seas above 8 feet and winds of more than 30 knots. Those parameters were set because the boat has a tendency, in rough seas, to flip end over end.

Twenty years ago, two Coast Guardsmen died when the 41-footer they took out on a mission flipped over while operating in high seas. Because of that incident, the Coast Guard commandant placed restrictions when to use the boat. And those restrictions can only be broken under specific circumstances.

Harrop explained that the circumstances on Jan. 25 did meet the criteria required to allow the eager Coast Guardsmen to perform the job the do best: saving lives.

“There was no one else,” Harrop said.

So they went.

A 47-foot boat from Coast Guard Station Little Creek was en route to the tug, but it was more than 30 miles away. A helicopter that would ordinarily be used to pluck people out of the water couldn’t fly in the more than 70-know winds. The Coast Guardsmen at Coast Guard Station Cape Charles had to go.

They wanted to go. And they knew they would come back.

“When the call comes — you go,” Haggerty said.

Because of the dangers, each crewman was a volunteer. Led by Habel, the station’s officer-in-charge, each Coast Guardsmen was confident in their leader’s ability to maneuver the boat in such volatile weather and seas. They donned survival suits and were off the battle the ice, snow, freezing rain and near-zero visibility. There mission was clear, however. Rescue three crewmen from the 110-foot tugboat Bay King. The tug had lost its 260-foot barge fully loaded with petroleum products, and the tug itself was in danger of crashing into a shoal near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

“I knew they could come,” the tug’s captain, Parran Keane said after the ceremony. “I was amazed they got there as quick as they did. They were incredible. When I saw the boat I was like, ‘Yes!’ I felt safe then.”

But the real terror was yet to come for the tug’s crew. After trying unsuccessfully to maneuver close to the tug, the Coast Guardsmen gave the order for the three men to abandon the tug. The crew was hesitant, but was left with only two choices: stay on the tug and die or enter the water and trust the Coasties to rescue them from the 38-degree water.

So, they jumped.

And within minutes, the Coast Guardsmen put their plan into action. As one Coastie threw a line into the water, another was standing by with a line in hand in case the first line didn’t reach the men. The wind blew the first line back into the 41. A man grabbed the second line and was safely lifted aboard the Coast Guard boat. The second man was lifted aboard, too. Each spent less than two minutes in the water. But getting the third man on board was more difficult. He weighed nearly 350 pounds. It took several tries, but he was eventually rescued safely.

Everyone — Coasties and tug crewmen — came back. Through blizzard conditions, the 41 had completed its mission. Three tugboat crewmen were alive, and five Coasties were, too. Other than being cold and wet, everyone was in good condition.

“Their actions were justified, warranted, properly executed and stand as a testimony to their personal commitment, dedication and professionalism and to the reputation of the rescuers of life,” Harrop said.

Seven months after the rescue, the day had come to honor the heroes for their sacrifice. For Habel, there was the Coast Guard Medal. Only Coast Guardsmen who distinguish themselves by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy are eligible for this medal. The act has to be a voluntary act performed in the face of great danger that is above normal expectations and presents great danger to one’s own life.

Habel’s actions qualified.

The crew of CG 41502 received the Meritorious Service Medal. It’s awarded to members of the armed forces who distinguish themselves through outstanding non-combat meritorious achievement in service to their country.

Their actions qualified, too.

After the ceremony, Keane was overcome with emotion while talking about the incident. Keane’s young son tightly embraced his father’s left leg while watching the Coast Guardsmen receive thanks from those attending the ceremony.

Amy Palmer sat in the front row of the Palace Theater wiping the tears from her face and clutching her 4-month-old son as she watched Vice Adm. John E. Shkor, Commander of Coast Guard Atlantic Area and Coast Guard Fifth District in Portsmouth, pin her husband’s medal to his light-blue shirt pocket.

When Palmer received his recognition and the audience clapped for him, his 2-year-old daughter giggled and said, “Dat’s funny.”

Her father agreed.

I feel kind of silly,” Palmer said, “Coasties do this stuff every day.”

Three-year-old Cody Leavelle sat next to his grandmother as his father was honored. The day’s events made perfect sense to him.

“My dad gets a paper saying he was good,” Cody said with a sheepish grin.

And Vice Adm. Shkor echoed Cody’s sentiments — albeit a little more eloquently.

“We are humbled in the face of their skill and of their courage,” Shkor said. “Their heroic actions reflect credit upon themselves and are in keeping with, no, they set the standard for the highest traditions of the United States Coast Guard. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.”

The Coasties likewise hope this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, although they said they wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

There have been numerous awards and recognition ceremonies during the last few months for the Coast Guard heroes. And there are still more to come.

However, this ceremony was special. It was special to the family members and to the town of Cape Charles who have grown attached to the crew of Coast Guard Station Cape Charles.

“These are our boys,” said Carol Evans co-owner of the Cape Charles Bed and Breakfast with her husband, Bruce.

“Joe (Habel) has through his leadership showed the town of Cape Charles that we have a responsibility to the Coast Guard”, Bruce Evans said.

But the heroes see the opposite. “What I did out there that day was no big deal. I was just a crew member,” Haggerty said.

Tell that to the Keane family. They’re likely to see his efforts as being a little more significant.

They all came back.

And they didn’t even have to go.


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