Through the Thanksgiving holiday, many Americans look forward to reuniting with family, watching football and of course feasting on turkey and pumpkin pie. But, Thanksgiving is more than good food and good games. It is a time to reflect on those who have made a difference in our lives and community. In this spirit of giving thanks, we reached out to our Facebook fans and asked them to share the story of a Coast Guard member who has touched their life. Today’s story shows one woman’s 26-year pursuit to pay it forward after being rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard as a young girl.
I am a Marielita. I left Cuba through the port of Mariel during the Mariel Exodus of 1980. I was 13 years old.
It was May 15, 1980, when my family and I were crammed along with 30 other people in a 10-person boat destined for the U.S. Within a few hours of our journey we found ourselves in the middle of a storm. It was dark and waves punched the boat left and right. Soon many of us were sick to our stomachs. We were drenched in salt water and vomit. Sometime later, the captain announced we were adrift. Our motors had given out. The captain called for help and lights went up in the dark sky. After a while, we heard the propeller of a helicopter. A Coast Guard helicopter had spotted us. They said a vessel was nearby and took my grandmother on a stretcher. I watched her disappear into the dark sky.
The next thing I remember was a bright light: a Coast Guard vessel named the Vigorous. A decision was made to rescue the women and children only. A man carried me and passed me to another and then another until I set foot on the ship. My brother came after and then finally my mother, who climbed her way up the belly of the ship holding onto a rope ladder hanging above the waves between our boat and the Vigorous. We said goodbye to my father, not knowing when we would see each other again.
There was a sense of relief, but we were still scared. My mother, brother and I lay together on the floor of the ship. I was too sick to sit. My mother took my brother’s belt and put it around her wrist and around his leg fearing he’d get up and fall overboard. We spent three days aboard the ship watching other rescues. People lost their lives; one girl lost 14 members of her family.
A young man brought me an orange and an inflatable raft, which he placed in the middle of the ship for me. We wore the same clothes. I still couldn’t eat anything. The smell of food made my stomach turn. Only the drops of orange juice, which the young Coast Guard man squeezed in my mouth every morning, stayed down.
On May 18, I sat down on the floor for a picture with the service member who had taken care of me. He took his cap and put it on my head. I could barely sit straight. Someone snapped a picture while I smiled shyly. We left that day, aboard another Coast Guard vessel while the Vigorous continued on its rescue mission.
My family reunited the next day in Key West and that day began the rest of our lives, with only the clothes on our backs, a Polaroid picture and a blue cap.
I had decided to find the man on the picture but I didn’t even have his name. In July of 2001, I accompanied my father to the Office of Immigration for his naturalization interview. To my surprise the interviewer had been a Coast Guardsman aboard the Vigorous in May of 1980. I asked him if he would identify a picture and the next day sent me a name.
I called and emailed the National Archives, researched the name, emailed the Vigorous and the Coast Guard. I searched data files and requested muster rolls, without any luck. After four years of failed attempts, in September 2005, I finally received an answer from the Vigorous. It was a suggestion to post my message on a site for “coasties.”
A month later, I posted my 26-year-old picture. After another wave of emails, I received a phone call from the man I was looking for. His name was Roccie. He asked that I call him and left me his phone number.
Roccie and I talked for hours. We talked about meeting someday, but neither he nor I thought that someday would come so soon.
In April 2006, I received a call from one of Roccie’s crewmembers. They asked if I’d go to Kentucky for Roccie’s retirement ceremony scheduled for May 18, exactly 26 years to the day our paths crossed aboard the Vigorous.
The ceremony took place by the Mississippi River, next to Roccie’s ship. I sat in the back behind an officer who blocked me from Roccie’s view. An officer speaking about the lives Roccie had touched during his years serving the Coast Guard introduced me. I walked toward Roccie with a poster-size picture of our Polaroid and the cap he had given me 26 years prior. We hugged, and I said “Thank you.”
This is my story. A story about perseverance, gratitude, freedom and the pursuit of paying it forward. I thank my parents for having the courage to bring my brother and me to a country where we have enjoyed opportunities and, most importantly, where we have found freedom. I share the story for my children so they know who they are and where they come from. For this wonderful country I call my own and the kindness of its people. And for all my fellow Cubans who will never forget the Mariel experience but whose lives were changed forever for the better.
Stick with us throughout the week as we feature more stories by family and friends giving thanks to the servicemember in their life. We also encourage you to write your own notes of thanks to friends, acquaintances and even strangers who touched your life this year.