Heartbreak on America’s Frontlines

U.S. servicemen and women can pay the ultimate price for the nation’s safety and security at the most unexpected times, in the most unexpected places.

I’m standing on the blistering tarmac at Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento waiting for checklists to begin. The day is shaping up to break the 100 degree mark, so it’s hot, dry and miserable, typical for the summer months in Sacramento. The dense flight suit and heat trapping gloves make me appreciate what a baked potato feels like.

At last the checklist begins with a loud crackle over my headset. I watch closely as the four massive propellers roar to life like windmills on an open plain. I gather up the ICS cord that connects my headset to the aircraft intercom and I hustle inside, making sure that the crew door is safe and secure. Inside the airplane a putrid smell of burning JP5 jet fuel lingers in the air, creating a feeling of disgust in my stomach.

A Coast Guard C-130 plane in flight
Photo: Tom G. Hardin /Flickr/cc-by-nc-sa-2.0

Engines rumbling, our C-130 rescue plane takes flight, bound for the cold whitecaps of the Oregon coast. Our crew of nine is on another law enforcement mission, looking for suspicious vessels and signs of distress.

The aircraft commander slips on a pair of mirrored aviator shades, as the blinding sunlight pierces through the flight deck windows. I watch as he pushes the throttles forward, shooting the plane down the runway like a projectile from a catapult. Engines rumbling, our C-130 rescue plane takes flight, bound for the cold whitecaps of the Oregon coast.

Our crew of nine is on another law enforcement mission, looking for suspicious vessels and signs of distress. This is one of my last missions before I separate from the Coast Guard to pursue education.

I am the drop master on this flight with collateral duties as sensor system operator. My job is to deploy life rafts and survival gear, and to operate a high-powered zoom camera. Once airborne, I peek out the large crew window and observe miles of dull flat landscape scorched by the relentless summer heat. Down below, vehicles look like matchbox cars as they race about the interstate. The soft droning of the engines relaxes me as I settle in for a long day.

To my left is my basic aircrew member. He has just transferred over from a helicopter unit in San Diego and is new to C-130 aircraft. At 6’1’’, he is a towering trunk of no-nonsense muscle who spends hours each day perfecting his physique at the gym. He is tough, strong and oozes confidence, quickly learning his duties as a basic aircrew member. I watch as he opens his Coast Guard-issued box lunch and picks at his food until a Snickers bar is revealed. Candy bars and water are the only two things worth eating in these box lunches; the other food is just plain awful.

Eight hours later, an exhausted crew safely returns to the air station. We will go home to share our stories and celebrate the next day of life. Today was a successful day of flight operations. Our cohesive crew upheld the highest standards of the Coast Guard core values: Honor, respect and devotion to duty.