Volunteer 'Coasties' Do Their Bit for America
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 6, 2002 About 34,000 Americans ranging in age from 17 to 90 volunteer to work -- without pay -- for the U.S. Coast Guard.
"We do it because it's fun," said Viggo Bertelsen Jr., national commodore of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. "We also derive a great deal of satisfaction out of serving our country and being affiliated with the U.S. Coast Guard."
Auxiliary members make up a real cross section of America, said the commodore, a former Navy officer. Some auxiliary members are on active duty in the armed forces. Some are military retirees. Others have no formal ties to the military. Yet all eagerly help safeguard the nation's ports and waterways, Bertelsen said.
"Our average age is about 56.7 years," he said. "We find that many of our members are joining at the time when life begins -- when the dog dies and the kids leave home, when there's no more PTA or soccer practice.
"There is no age limit," he noted. "We have a lot of people that have been in 20 or 30 years. I've been in for 28 years. We have many people who have been in since World War II. We even have some people who joined as charter members back in 1939. There are five or six of them still around."
Auxiliary members pay minimal annual dues to train and qualify to wear the Coast Guard uniform in support of active and reserve "Coasties." Instead of the Coast Guard's gold buttons and trim, Bertelsen noted, auxiliary uniforms are distinguished by silver buttons and braid.
"It's a labor of love," he said. "We receive no direct money from the Coast Guard to run our organization."
Every member is assigned to a local flotilla and each works with the Coast Guard as an individual. "They don't activate a flotilla," he explained. "They activate individuals to serve in specific cases." Members working under Coast Guard orders receive compensation for fuel and subsistence rations -- but no pay.
In the immediate wake of last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 10,000 auxiliary members stepped forward to help, Bertelsen said. Since then, the membership has served more than 200,000 volunteer hours.
"There just weren't enough Coast Guard people to operate 'seven by 24,' so we provided the people," he said.
Members helped patrol harbors in New York, Washington and other major U.S. ports. They staffed Coast Guard small boat stations after the active Coast Guardsmen were pulled out for more hazardous duties, Bertelsen said.
For more than 60 years, the auxiliary has routinely supported active duty and reserve Coasties as directed by the Coast Guard commandant.
"We are not empowered to bear arms nor are we involved in giving people tickets for violations," Bertelsen noted. "Everything else is fair game for us, so our people are involved in search and rescue, safety patrols in the air and on the water, harbor safety and regatta patrols."
The auxiliary's primary mission is recreational boating safety. The group conducts an extensive public education program on boating safety and other subjects. It also has a vessel safety-check program.
The auxiliary covers every state and U.S. territory. "We have probably more Coast Guard auxiliary people in the heartland of America than there are Coast Guard people in the same area," the commodore said. "In many respects, we are the Coast Guard on the river systems of the country and many of the inland lakes."
Auxiliary members, for example, run seasonal stations on the Great Lakes. "During the summer, we have people who fully operate Coast Guard search and rescue stations," he said. "They do this as volunteers seven by 24, just as if they were a regular Coast Guard crew. Their payment is in the satisfaction of doing the job."
Bertelsen recalled one couple who went on vacation to serve at a Coast Guard station in the Northwest. The husband, an outboard motor mechanic, overhauled the station's outboard motors while there. The wife, an inventory control expert, revamped the station's entire storage system to make it more effective, he added.
The auxiliary has more than 200 people fluent in various foreign languages. They're available to assist any Coast Guard unit anywhere, the commodore said. One, for instance, is fluent in Russian and Japanese and has spent a lot of time aboard cutters in the Bering Sea helping to deal with Russian sea patrols and the fishing fleets encountered there, he noted.
Auxiliary Spanish speakers are involved in Coast Guard operations in the Caribbean. "When interdiction of migrants and others takes place," he said, "we have people who can communicate and facilitate who not only know the language but also know the culture."
Medical specialists, strategic planners, marine experts -- the auxiliary's members contribute a variety of other valuable skills, the commodore said. Their common thread is those who also have "regular jobs" (unlike mobilized reservists) have only the job protection rights their employers give them, he emphasized.
Fortunately, employers are generally supportive of the auxiliary, he said.
"They recognize that this is a patriotic endeavor and we have members who are making a significant contribution to the overall cause of maritime domain awareness and homeland security," Bertelsen concluded.