Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann.
They’ve served with distinction since 1790. Today, they are responsible for 11 missions that keep America and its waterways safe and secure. U.S. Coast Guard crewmembers have served their country with honor, respect and devotion to duty since the first revenue cutter took to the water, but if there’s one trait that could sum up the reputation of the entire service, it might just be courage.
Last month, the crewmembers of Coast Guard Aviation Training Center Mobile, Ala., met a person whose bravery matched and exceeded their own.
Luke Wiedeman has lived with a brain tumor for more than three years. He’s been through tests, scans, surgeries, chemotherapy, and through it all, he’s kept his dream of becoming a Coast Guard rescue swimmer.
“I really like the idea of young boys and girls wanting to be a part of this organization,” said Cmdr. David Saunders, operations officer at Aviation Training Center Mobile. “I asked his dad: What made Luke decide he wanted to be interested in the Coast Guard? And his dad didn’t know either. It’s just something he had a passion for at an early age.”
Luke’s wish to become a rescue swimmer resonated with Saunders. Being from the same part of the country as the Wiedemans, Saunders knows how important it is for the Coast Guard to reach out to regions where they are generally unknown.
“I think it’s important for people to know who we are and what we’re about. In this case it was unique, because Luke is coming from Utah,” said Saunders. “Being from Colorado, that part of the country doesn’t get much exposure to the Coast Guard. His desire to be a rescue swimmer of all the things a young boy could want to do, we just thought that was awesome.”
When the Wiedeman family made the 1,000-plus mile trip to the training center, they certainly had ideas about how their son would be participating in his training as an honorary Coast Guard rescue swimmer. But, what the Coast Guardsmen of ATC had planned far surpassed what they anticipated.
“We just thought we’d go, meet some personnel, shake some hands, maybe get a tour of the facility, some words of encouragement … our expectations were greatly exceeded,” said Luke’s father.
For the first day of the training, Coast Guard rescue swimmers ran Luke through pool drills and demonstrations of rescue techniques and equipment, having him try on each piece of their gear and explaining how each is used to either keep them safe or assist in a rescue.
Afterwards, Luke was treated to the high-tech flight and aircrew weapons simulators that are unique to ATC. Trained pilots helped guide him through the controls and procedures for take-offs and landings.
The second day of his wish, Luke was able to put his new skills to the test. ATC orchestrated a search-and-rescue demonstration with Luke as the star. A boat was arranged for his family to watch from as Luke was lowered into the water of Mobile Bay from an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, to rescue two rescue swimmers who were feigning distress.
Luke successfully loaded the two into the helicopter’s rescue basket and, lastly, was hoisted himself.
Upon returning to the training center, Luke was welcomed by a round of applause and hearty handshakes from every available crewmember of ATC. The celebration culminated in a ceremony where Luke received a letter of appreciation from the unit.
“We didn’t think he’d get to participate in the training the way he did, participate in the mission like he did,” said Luke’s father. “Just the way the whole base turned out to make Luke, and us, feel welcome. It was awesome.”
Even after saying his final goodbyes to a host of new friends and pen pals, Luke’s day was about to get better.
By coincidence, the hotel the Wiedeman family was staying at was hosting a command conference for the Coast Guard. As the family made their way through the lobby on their way to dinner, they were recognized by Vice Adm. Robert Parker, commander of Coast Guard Atlantic Area, whom they’d just met the day before.
“He recognized us and happened to be with [Adm. Robert Papp, commandant of the Coast Guard] at the time and he said, ‘Oh, here’s someone I’d like you to meet.’ He introduced Luke to the commandant,” said Luke’s father. “Luke said ‘Sir, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I am not sure what the commandant is.’ I kind of whispered in his ear that this is the admiral in charge of the whole Coast Guard and Coast Guard operations.”
“It was kind of a humorous moment. [Papp] offered some words of encouragement. Just a great guy,” said Luke’s father. “I kind of explained to Luke a little bit later that this guy probably talks to President Obama on a regular basis. It was a real highlight.”
Coast Guard history is saturated with heroes that met immense obstacles and overcame them. Joshua James, Bernard Webber or Douglas Munro could tell tales of battling adversity that, if compared to those that Luke Wiedeman might tell, could sound vaguely similar. And, just as the Coast Guard praises and elevates its heroes, the members of ATC felt very at home honoring Luke.
“This really reinforces what we’re all about,” said Saunders. “This benefits us just as much as it benefits him. It really brings us together as a community, as aviators and it recalibrates what we’re here for. Whether you’re on an aircraft or a cutter, whatever, we’re all Coast Guardsmen, and we’re all out here to do the business of serving the American people.”
This story originally appeared at Coast Guard Heartland.