Enlisted Essay Contest, Second Honorable Mention
It all started with a foul odor that hit me like a brick wall. My eyes began to water; my throat tightened. On this 115deg day, I couldn't begin to imagine its source. I stepped onto the main deck of the ship, unaware of the horrific and exhausting events that were unfolding. Before me was a 60-foot, makeshift sailboat overloaded with 300 Haitians. They were stacked three high, screaming, crying, and dying. There was the source of that foul odor: stagnant, salty air, feces, and death. That Fourth of July was the most difficult and heartbreaking, and also the most educational day of my life. I needed to experience death and deprivation before I could truly appreciate all the things I always had taken for granted, and which things are most important in the long run.
As we pulled the boat alongside and attempted to bring the refugees on board, it dropped straight underwater as if someone had let it go from a ten-story building. We now had 300 weak, struggling Haitians in the ocean staring up at us. The look in their eyes was confusing: It seemed to beg "Help me," yet at the same time saying "Look what you have done." Immediately, lifelines, survival rafts, and rescue swimmers went over the side. Our crew of 170 men and women became one; not a word was said; we knew what had to be done. The migrants were safely on board within 30 minutes, to join the 200 we had rescued the night before. I carried 20 adults and 5 infants. I held the hand of a dead man while a hospital corpsman attempted to revive him. I spent hours searching through 500 Haitians for a woman's child, only to be the bearer of bad news. We spent the next 12 hours nursing, feeding, comforting, and praying silently that this wouldn't happen again.
Imagine enduring that smell, that heat, and that pain for the next 75 days. During this exhausting patrol, sometimes there was only enough water to shower once a week. We ran out of milk, the fruit and vegetables rotted, and the bread went stale. Summoning whatever energy they had left after feeding 500 Haitians through the night, the cooks tried to put something edible together for us. The crew would joke, "We would rather starve." At night, after the day's adrenaline had worn off, the crew was angry, thinking we didn't get paid enough money for this. Then we felt sorry for ourselves; we wanted hot showers, good meals, and to see our families. Our evaporator was down, and our fresh water supply was running out fast. I just could not imagine going another day without a bath, or having to wear filthy clothes for yet another week. When it was my turn to pass out a cup of water and a bowl of beans to each migrant, however, I realized that they did not care that they hadn't bathed in weeks. When they fled Haiti, they did not know when or where they would get their next sip of fresh water or their next meal. I was disgusted by the smell of my own filthy clothes until I noticed some of the women didn't even have underwear. But they did not seem to care; they just were happy to be alive. I ran down to my berthing area, enraged at my own selfishness. I searched my seabag for anything I could give them and found ten pairs of briefs I was issued in boot camp. That made ten Haitian women very happy, finally to cover themselves.
Suddenly, my problems seemed trivial by comparison. I always knew where my next meal was coming from. I knew I was protected from danger. I knew I had my family, a secure home, my cat, and all my dreams. There are millions of people in this world who never have been that fortunate. When they fled Haiti, our migrants were ready to give up their lives, in hopes of attaining anything better. They stayed strong and smiling, knowing that whatever the future held had to be better than what they left behind. Now they had no homes, and now some had no families. We were their only hope—the only ones who knew that their true destiny was back to Haiti.
Seventy-five days and more than a 1,000 migrants later, we left Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for home. I took away vivid memories of their suffering faces, their strength, and their appreciation for life. Now, I understand clearly that the true reason I joined the Coast Guard was to save lives. If I had to do this all over again, I would.
If we had not been there for them, who would have been? I learned a vital lesson about what is really important.
Petty Officer Duncan served on board USCGC Hamilton (WHEC-715), and is currently assigned to U.S. Coast Guard Group San Francisco.