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SERVICE REFLECTIONS
OF A Coast Guard VETERAN
Nov 2018

Collins, Christopher BMC

Status Service Years
USCG Retired 1978 - 2002
Rate
BM-Boatswain's Mate
Primary Unit
1999-2002, BM, USCGC Polar Sea (WAGB-11)

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Service Reflections is an easy-to-complete self-interview, located on your TWS Profile Page, which enables you to remember key people and events from your military service and the impact they made on your life.

 
 

Please describe who or what influenced your decision to join the Coast Guard?

 

Joining the Armed Forces was always in the back of my mind as something I might do. I batted around for 3 years after high school. I was going to be a pilot, but my funds ran out and I was to busy looking out the window instead of dedicating myself to fling. Worked in factories for a while. Drove a gravel truck for a while. Nothing really satisfying.

My father was in the Merchant Marine during WWII and was offered a commission in the Coast Guard after the war. He declined and went on to become an English Professor. But he often told me if you ever decide to join the military, join the Coast Guard. He was impressed with the role the Coast Guard played in Armed Forces of this country. He eventually joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary himself.

So my journey began in 1978 upon arriving in Cape May for Boot Camp and ended 24 years later in 2002.

 

Whether you were in the service for several years or as a career, please describe the direction or path you took. What was your reason for leaving?

 

I always enjoyed the water and boats. After studying the Coast Guard brochure, over and over again, I decided if I wanted to drive boats, I had to become a Boatswains Mate. I drove 41 ft UTB's at Station Grand Isle, Louisiana and a 44ft at Station Portage, Michigan. I was a good boat driver, and probably should have stuck with that line of work, but I moved on to different units, such as a Duty Officer at a Group (Sector), worked at a Marine Safety Office. All good experiences for a career in the Coast Guard.

Getting later on in my career, I realized I needed sea time to make Chief, so I headed to the CGC Courageous as BM1. Took me a while but finally made BMC and headed for my twilight tour of duty onboard the CGC Polar Sea. What a great way to end my career. What an experience!!

My son was living in Wisconsin at this time with my ex-wife. He was about to start high school, so I thought it was time to retire and be close to my son. It had been10 years since the divorce, so it was time to get close again. I saw my son grow to be a fine man. He played HS football for 4 years and graduated from college and has a good job in Minnesota. I see him often as I am still here in Wisconsin, about 45 minutes away from where he lives.

 

If you participated in any military operations, including combat, humanitarian and peacekeeping operations, please describe those which were the most significant to you and, if life-changing, in what way.

 

In 1994 and 1995 I was in two operations: In 1994 while attached to the CGC Courageous we patrolled the straights of Florida in Operation Able Vigil. Our mission was to intercept Haitians and Cubans trying to migrate to the United States. Also in 1994/ 1995 while still attached to the Courageous, we jointly worked with the U.S. Navy in Operation Uphold Democracy. Uphold Democracy was authorized by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 940. The purpose was to remove the military regime that overthrew Haitian President Jean - Bertrand Aristide. When I first joined the Coast Guard I had a chance to stop in Cap Haitian, Haiti for R&R while onboard the CGC Firebush.

We had left Baltimore Ship Yards, en route Gitmo for REFTRA. At the time Haiti was considered one of the poorest nations in the world. I witnessed first hand how many people lived. It was heartbreaking to see these people fleeing their own country that they were born and raised in to reach the shore of the U.S. People from Cuba where looking for the same opportunities.

At first, we were letting the Cubans in, because they were coming from a communist country. The Haitians weren't so lucky they were either brought back to Haiti or later placed in camps in Gitmo. After some time this was also the fate of the Cubans. It is very sad that people of their own country have to flee because of poverty or a cruel governmental regime is in power. Unfortunately, it still continues today!

 

Was there a particular incident during your service when you believed you were in a situation you might not survive? Please describe what happened and what was the outcome.

 

The closest I came to that was when I was stationed onboard the CGC Citrus in Kodiak, AK. This was back in 1979. We were cruising in the Ouzinkie Narrows in Alaska when our ship hit an uncharted rock and ripped a 17 ft hole in our hull. We flooded 3 compartments. My berthing area was one of them. Dry stores also flooded which was below my berthing area and the main hold below the buoy deck flooded. Luckily the engine room did not flood so we still had power. If the engine room would have flooded it may have been a possible disaster. It was Feb and the water was frigid. No casualties, the ship did not sink. Pulled into a fishing village and made temporary repairs until we got back to Kodiak.

 

Of all your duty stations or assignments, which one do you have fondest memories of and why? Which one was your least favorite?

 

I really enjoyed my 3 years at Coast Guard Station Portage, in Michigan. It was a close-knit group of individuals. This station was situated in the Keewenaw Peninsula in upper Michigan. This was copper country. In the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century, this area was the king of copper mining. The town I lived in was Calumet. In its heyday, the town was on the proposal list to become the state capital of Michigan. Unfortunately, it was too far in the boonies and as the copper started to run out of the area, Calumet and other towns in the area became depressed. People left, jobs ran out. Interestingly they left a plethora of historic buildings, mines, old mining cemeteries, etc. It is like going back in time. I had good friends there. We skied, hunted, canoed. stuff I probably wouldn't have done on my own. My friends brought me out of my shell. I did party way too much and ended up getting married when I probably shouldn't of. But I have a wonderful son out of a bad marriage. I have been back to the Calumet area several times. The whole town proper is now a historical site. I liked it better 33 years ago.

My least favorite was probably my time as Duty Officer at Group Woods Hole. Search and Rescue coordination was very stressful at times, especially at peak season. Flare sightings were the worst I thought. One wrong decision and people could perish. Very Stressful!!! One of those jobs where you cringed when the phone rang, at least for me. After my third year I was getting fairly proficient, but still stressful. A good day is get not getting woken up at 2 AM. The good part is that I had a lot of time off to spend with my toddler son.

 

From your entire service, including combat, describe the personal memories which have impacted you most?

 

So many!! The first unit was, of course, my introduction to the military way of life and of Sea Duty. Getting your sea legs so you quit getting sick was essential to the sea service way of life. But, at first, I was sick as a dog bouncing around the Gulf of Alaska in a round bottom 180 ft buoy tender. Almost sinking on the same boat was quite a fright for a kid just out of boot camp. We did not sink, thankfully.

Hitchhiking to Kodiak from the Support Center, as most of the non-rates did not have cars was easy, getting back late at night or in the wee hours of the morning was a different story. You had to to be careful of the Kodiak Brown bears. Don't wander out in the woods alone. Of course, the shipmates make the unit.

Being on the 210 ft Courageous was an eye-opener. Spent 3 years roaming around the Caribbean. Stopped in many countries. Most of the time we were picking boat people out of the water as they tried to get to the U.S. from such places as Haiti and Cuba. You got to see the desperation of people fleeing poverty and cruel governmental regimes for a better life in the U.S.

My last tour of duty was the CGC Polar Sea! What a way to end a career. 2 trips to the Antarctic, twice to Australia and Tasmania. Finally got to Hawaii twice as well. Black and white in Antarctica. Icebergs, killer whales, seals and of course penguins. What an experience. Almost got to the Arctic, but engineering problems forced us home. Damn!! Almost made it Japan. Same thing! Damn again!!!

Some of the best people in the world: Coasties, my shipmates! Bless them all!

 

What achievement(s) are you most proud of from your military career?

 

I think making Chief Petty Officer was my big achievement. This is what I wanted for a long time. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the ride to Chief. I have many fond memories, adventures and made many friends along the way. Unfortunately, It took me twenty years to make Chief, so I only got to wear the anchors for 3 years. But as the saying goes "once a Chief, always a Chief." As Chief, you are in the upper echelon of the enlisted rates. There is that respect from your peers, your officers and the people working for you. You have more responsibilities of course, but the people under you look to you now for guidance and safety. The Officer corps now look to you for advice. They know you have been around for a while and know the ropes. You know how to talk and get things done! "Go ask the Chief," he should have the answer.

 

Of all the medals, awards, formal presentations and qualification badges you received, or any other memorabilia, please describe those which are the most meaningful to you and why?

 

Getting My Coxswain Pin was a major accomplishment. I was Coxswain on 41 ft and 44ft small boats. That was why I went Boatswains Mate. I also qualified as Heavy Weather Coxswain.

The Coast Guard Achievement award was meaningful in that this was personal. I did this and was recognized for it. We all want to be recognized from time to time. It's good for our moral and ego.

The Humanitarian award was rewarding as the Coast Guard was responsible for rescuing boat people during Operation Able Manner and Operation Uphold Democracy. I was on the CGC Courageous at the time and that is almost all we did was pull people out of the water from their make-shift rafts. Whenever we were assigned to law enforcement patrol we would almost always be reassigned to patrol for freedom seekers coming from Haiti or Cuba. It was heartbreaking at times to see how desperate people are to find peace and freedom. We tend to take that for granted here in America.

 

Which individual(s) from your time in the military stand out as having the most positive impact on you and why?

 

All of them!!!

 

Can you recount a particular incident from your service which may or may not have been funny at the time, but still makes you laugh?

 

When I was in Boot camp in Cape May (1978 - Tango 101), one of our camp mates was caught smoking on the fire escape at 0200. Our Company Commander and our sister CC woke all of us up and made us watch as they stuck the whole pack of cigarettes in his mouth, lite them all and placed a garbage can over his head. If that wasn't bad enough, they made him spin around until he threw up in the wastebasket. Lesson learned for us and our sister company. Not so funny then, but looking back, kind of! They probably could not get away with that today?

 

What profession did you follow after your military service and what are you doing now? If you are currently serving, what is your present occupational specialty?

 

I retired from the Coast Guard in 2002 after 24 years of service. I studied the job situation in the area and found nothing at the time that interested me. I had my retirement income but knew I needed a supplemental income to make ends meet.

For some crazy notion, I became a school bus driver. Becoming a bus driver was the furthest thing from my mind at the time. It is a school district-owned bus company with a union, so the wages were higher than other for-profit bus companies. I worked a few hours in the morning and then had 5 plus hours off until we had to take the students home. Not a bad gig, if you can put up with noisy kids!! So, I've been doing this for the last 15 year and will probably retire from driving this summer (2018). The nice thing about this job was that I had time to go to University and received a Bac. degree in Geography. Took me 7 years, but I got it. I will get a small pension from this job and am getting close to Social Security time. Time passes fast, enjoy life!!

 

What military associations are you a member of, if any? What specific benefits do you derive from your memberships?

 

I am a member of the following associations: American Legion, VFW, FRA, TREA, Coast Guard CPOA, and Amvets. These Associations are the voice of the military in Washington. They are there to protect the interests of the armed forces personnel, especially the men and women that have done their duty and have been discharged or retired. Also, most towns have a Legion or VFW post you can join. These posts are a vital part of a community. Many are open to the public. They benefit not only vets and their families but raise funds for the community projects and local charities. My post has weekly chicken fries and bingo to bring in funds. The bar is open on Fridays and special occasions. The hall can be rented for weddings, etc. I like these places when I travel. Like I mentioned earlier, many towns have posts. It is a safe haven when far from home!

 

In what ways has serving in the military influenced the way you have approached your life and your career? What do you miss most about your time in the service?

 

It gave me confidence in myself that I have the ability to get the job done in a safe and timely manner in sometimes very stressful situations. I find that I don't get as worried or stressed out as much as when I was younger (Most of the time, I am a school bus driver you know)! I learned to seek out help and not to go it alone. Being in the military makes you mature and responsible earlier than normal. When I was 23, I was a 41ft UTB Boat Coxswain, responsible for going out in all sorts of weather to rescue people at sea. I can find the humor in things today that may have bothered me before. I am more aware of what is going on in the U.S. and around the world. Being in the military, you have the chance to see different countries and cultures. You see the poverty and distress in many, such as in Cuba and Haiti and the many that tried to reach our shores. We tend to take our freedom for granted here in America. We are very lucky compared to the many in distant shores.

 

Based on your own experiences, what advice would you give to those who have recently joined the Coast Guard?

 

Chose your billets wisely. I know sometimes your dream job doesn't come up and you may have to take a duty station that may not be to your liking. Do your best, be professional. It will only be for 3 or 4 years. I for example always wanted to be a Boat Coxswain. I did two tours at small boat stations. I then left small boats and ships for 7 years. I lost a lot of what I learned. Don't get me wrong I learned plenty from these other experiences, but I forgot a lot of what I used to be. I guess you could call it being "out of rate." If you have a passion for small boats, shipboard duty, engineering, etc. Stay in that field as long you are able and still enjoy it. If you find yourself in a billet that takes you away from your primary rate, study, keep learning. You also need a good sense of humor, times can get tough. Laughter is good. I would not have made it through 24 years without it.

 

In what ways has TogetherWeServed.com helped you remember your military service and the friends you served with.

 

I don't hear from many Coasties that I served with anymore. This site has brought people together again. It was great to see the names and some faces again. I even was able to get in touch with a couple shipmates that I haven't seen in years. What a great site. The memories are coming out again. You tend to forget. This puts a smile on my face when I see the names again. I hope many more find out about this site. Thank You!!!

 
 
 

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