Volunteer Reservist Finds Her Job Has New Meaning

I gave free-lance writing a try for nine months after being laid off in early 2001 as a staff writer for a San Francisco trade magazine. Then I learned I could use my journalism skills to serve my country as a part-time reservist in the Coast Guard. Not only would I get paid, but I’d have fun. I signed on the dotted line in August. After the events of Sept. 11, my decision became much more meaningful. Here’s what happened.

As a freelancer working at home last winter, I soon felt isolated. My mind wanders when I have too much free time on my hands. Instead of gabbing with co-workers to while away the hours, I turn to the Internet for escape.

That’s where I found myself one April afternoon. I like volunteering, so instead of starting a new work project, I searched on the Internet for worthy causes and an opportunity to learn something new.

I recalled that while attending the University of California at Berkeley, I would see a sign on the Oakland Bay Bridge urging drivers to join the Coast Guard Auxiliary, a civilian, nonmilitary arm of the Coast Guard. I check out its Web site. The auxiliary’s activities, including teaching safe-boating classes and performing marine safety checks, seemed laudable. But I wanted something more.

A friend who was interested in the Navy Reserve suggested that I investigate the Coast Guard Reserve. The Coast Guard is the only branch of the armed forces with a peacetime mission and in the Bay Area, its activities, which include search and rescue, drug interdiction and boating safety, directly benefit local residents.

When I was in high school, I sailed around San Francisco Bay as a member of the Sea Scouts. From those trips I remembered the Coast Guard’s quiet, yet vigilant, presence. I reminisced about the Coast Guard welcoming us young sailors to its base for an annual regatta. Many friends had told me about the Coast Guard coming to their rescue; once, they saved some Sea Scouts after their sailboat sank in the Sacramento Delta.

When I called the nearest recruiting office, I found that for working one weekend a month, I could earn extra money, take advantage of military rates at hotels and eventually receive a pension. Few part-time jobs offer such benefits. My efforts would serve my country, and becoming a public servant seemed more meaningful than taking a private-sector job.

I also thought that working for the Coast Guard sounded like fun. I had visions of driving a patrol boat around San Francisco Bay and saving stranded windsurfers. But at the ripe old age of 32, I was considered too old to be retrained. Apparently, only recruits under age 28 are trained for Coast Guard assignments unrelated to their professions. Fortunately, the Coast Guard had a job category suitable for someone with 10 years of professional journalistic experience: public-affairs specialist.

I would later learn that author Alex Haley was the first person to hold this position in the Coast Guard. As a public-affairs specialist, my duties would entail documenting Coast Guard activities through the written word, photographs and video. While the job didn’t involve jumping in the bay and saving people, it sounded exciting nonetheless. In August, after filling out multitudes of paperwork, passing an extensive physical, signing my name in triplicate and promising to serve my country for six years, I enlisted as a petty officer in the Coast Guard Reserve. I was assigned to the public-affairs office at the Coast Guard base in Alameda, Calif.

Next stop: two weeks of basic training at the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, N.J. I arrived Sept. 9 in this quaint town at New Jersey’s southernmost tip. As a group, reservists come from a broad range of backgrounds, ranging from law enforcement to stay-at-home moms. Most want to do something worthwhile and support the Coast Guard’s peacetime mission.

My group had 17 reservists, including myself. We had barely settled into our routines of rising at 5 a.m. and donning our uniforms for class before tragedy struck. Just as people say they’ll always remember where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated, I’ll never forget where I was on Sept. 11. We were in class when our chief summoned us to the large-screen TV in the lounge. We watched in horror as two planes plowed into the World Trade Center. A chill swept through me when the chief spoke. “We’re at war, folks,” he said.

The next two weeks were marked by uncertainty and fear. What would await us when we returned home? Some of my classmates received word that they were being called to active duty when they reported to their units. Indeed, about one-third of the 8,000 Coast Guard reservists nationwide have been called to active duty since September. Most have been assigned to port security work or to the new sea marshals program, a tour of duty that lasts one to two years.

In Cape May, we continued on as best we could, learning about military protocol, first aid, firearms and Coast Guard history. The events of Sept. 11 drew us closer together. We knew our mission had greater meaning than when we arrived. On the last day of camp, we wished each other well and parted ways. Some were immediately called into service. Others, like me, wonder if we’ll be next.

Meanwhile, I’ve begun training twice a month with my unit in Alameda. So far, it has been a great learning experience, as I’ve learned to use different camera, video and editing equipment. I’ve always been a wordsmith, and my photography skills leave much to be desired. Thanks to patient fellow shipmates, I’m learning to be a photojournalist.

I recently accompanied armed sea marshals as they boarded and escorted a container ship entering San Francisco Bay. We met the ship 12 miles outside the bay, scrambled up a Jacob’s ladder to board and sail under the Golden Gate and Bay bridges into the Port of Oakland. The seas were calm under an orange sunset. I interviewed the sea marshals, also reservists, took photos of them and later submitted a story to Coast Guard magazine.

There are certainly worse ways to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon. What seemed like a good idea six months ago has become an even better one.

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