Written by Senior Chief Petty Officer NyxoLyno Cangemi
In 2015, Petty Officer 1st Class Sean Carrillo, a marine science technician, stepped off a 420-foot icebreaker and onto the North Pole for the first time. The barren and frigid landscape was vastly different from the desert sands he grew up with more than 4,000 miles away in El Paso, Texas.
“I always wanted to be on an icebreaker,” Carrillo recalled. “I never would have thought as a kid coming from El Paso that I would be able to step foot on the North Pole one day.”
That moment was 34 years in the making, and if not for a back injury, it may not have happened at all.
Carrillo, now 37 years old, said most of his childhood was spent killing time in the desert.
“There isn’t much water in the desert, so a lot of my time growing up in El Paso was spent outdoors – shooting, hunting, riding bikes, just trying to have a good time during the 100-degree summers,” he said.
After he graduated high school in 1999, Carrillo looked for a more fulfilling life than working the occasional retail and sales jobs he typically held.
“I wanted to do something bigger than myself,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of a team, part of a group. I wanted that kind of comradery. I aspired to do something in law enforcement or with the fire department. The Coast Guard wasn’t even a thought for me. El Paso is landlocked.”
When his family moved to Seattle, Carrillo happened to look out onto the waters near the San Juan Islands and saw members of the U.S. Coast Guard conducting law enforcement patrols. At that moment, he knew he needed to pursue it. At the age of 25, Carrillo enlisted and went off to boot camp in Cape May, New Jersey.
After boot camp, Carrillo reported to a Coast Guard cutter in the state of Washington, where he wanted to be a boatswain’s mate – a job most commonly known to serve as small boat operators and law enforcement officers.
“I wanted to be underway. I wanted to be aboard small boats. I wanted to be on large cutters. These are all things I wanted to pursue when I joined,” he said.
Unfortunately, a back injury made riding aboard small boats a bitter and painful experience. Any hope Carrillo had of becoming a law enforcement officer was quickly dashed, so he took another route to enforcing the law – he became a marine inspector. Known as marine science technicians, MSTs typically spend their days working with ship captains and maritime facility operators to ensure their boats and facilities comply with federal rules and regulations. Working with civilians during his inspections provided Carrillo with a skillset that would later prove invaluable.
With about 1,200 MSTs in the service, only four of those serve underway on Coast Guard cutters. One such position was aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, which is one of only two icebreakers in the service. When a position aboard the ship opened up, Carrillo jumped at the opportunity, applied for the position and was accepted.
Prior to reporting aboard, Carrillo had to first complete a nearly 8-month long weather forecasting school at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Now, after nearly four years aboard the ship, the communication skills he learned conducting marine inspections, coupled with his new skills in weather forecasting, has made him an instrumental member of the crew.
Each summer, the Healy crew departs from their homeport in Seattle for the frigid temperatures of the Arctic Circle with teams of scientists to conduct scientific research. As the only U.S. icebreaker solely dedicated to science research, Carrillo serves as the liaison between the scientists aboard and the command cadre of the ship. As an MST, Carrillo expertly balances the needs of the science party with the rules, regulations and requirements associated with safely navigating the Arctic waters – a fact that isn’t lost on the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Greg Tlapa.
“Most people in the Coast Guard only communicate professionally with other Coast Guard members,” Tlapa said. “Because of the nature of his job, Carrillo is used to working with our port and industry partners on a regular basis. That skillset is instrumental in ensuring the needs of the scientists are met. He’s able to communicate their needs to us and our needs to them in a way most other members would find challenging.”
As one of only a handful of MSTs serving aboard a U.S. icebreaker, Carrillo has finally found that comradery he was looking for that drew him to military service. If every misstep leads one to their current destination, then Carrillo owes it to a bad back, which eventually led him to join the small community of Arctic blue nose polar bear sailors.