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Hats Off to Captain Bruce Jones

Today is the change of command and retirement for one of my personal Coast Guard heroes, Captain Bruce Jones. He is ending a 30-year distinguished career in the Coast Guard, one that has spanned more than 23 stations and assignments; most notably (from my perspective) Commanding Officer of Air Station New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Like many of us, I watched Hurricane Katrina unleash her fury on the Gulf Coast as the utter devastation to homes and lives played out over several days, feeling deep and profound sadness for those who lost everything in the storm's wake. But then I started to see the images and hear the first-person accounts of the Coast Guard in action by every means available — small boat, cutter, helicopter and airplane — saving lives, one at a time, 30,000 times over. Making a difference for people who desperately needed help in the most dire of circumstances.

bruce jones in seattle

As Commanding Officer at Air Station New Orleans, Captain Bruce Jones was on the front line of the Coast Guard response. Their own facilities impacted by the storm, Air Station crewmembers worked closely with then-Captain, now Rear Admiral, David Callahan from ATC Mobile to coordinate the air rescue responses of those trapped by the rising flood waters. After the most hectic days of the Coast Guard's storm response were over, Callahan and Jones took some time to share their reflections on what they saw firsthand.

2005 Nola Awardees

At our national awards dinner in New York that year, we honored 13 representatives from the Hurricane Katrina response teams, Captain Jones among them. It is still inspiring to me to think back to those days following Katrina and remember what Coast Guard members did to make a real difference for so many people who found themselves stranded, in harm's way, with nowhere to turn. Except they did have Captains Jones and Callahan, and the resources and determination of the mighty Coast Guard — ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things — each and every one of them.

In around the clock flight operations over a period of seven days, Coast Guard helicopters operating over New Orleans saved an astonishing 6,470 lives (4,731 by hoist) during 723 sorties and 1,507 flight hours. They also saved or assisted thousands of others by delivering tons of food and water to those who could not be moved immediately. These figures include all Coast Guard helicopter operations over the New Orleans metro area regardless of whether the flights originated at from Airstation New Orleans, Houston or Mobile, Alabama, and are almost certainly underreported as some sorties returned to their bases before overtaxed flight operations personnel could collect their data.

(Taken from a September 2005 email message from Callahan and Jones that was shared with the Coast Guard Foundation. The following has been lightly edited for content and clarity).

All Airstation New Orlean's berthing and most shop spaces were rendered uninhabitable by flooding after Katrina's winds peeled back the hangar roof. Consequently, during the intense first four days of the operation, until temporary tent cities and other shelters began to arrive, all aircrew and support personnel at the airstation bunked head to toe on floors or on cots in the station's crowded admin building.

For much of this time the admin building/operations center was without power, air conditioning, running water, and all but one working cellular phone making the concept of "adequate crew rest" an impossibility. ATC Mobile encountered challenges with their own hangar roof, losing all of their operations spaces, Opcen, and many maintenance shops, along with a loss of base wide power and phone communications.

Despite these hardships, the extraordinary Coast Guard men and women who gathered from all over the Coast Guard to join the fight worked ceaselessly and cheerfully, allowing around the clock search and rescue and maintenance operations to continue unabated and at an unprecedented level. The dogged determination, enthusiasm and eagerness to serve in any capacity exhibited by all members was awesome to behold. Many members of the embedded media commented frequently and with wonder at the superb quality, dedication and camaraderie of the entire crew.

In around the clock flight operations over a period of seven days, Coast Guard helicopters operating over New Orleans saved an astonishing 6,470 lives (4,731 by hoist) during 723 sorties and 1,507 flight hours. They also saved or assisted thousands of others by delivering tons of food and water to those who could not be moved immediately. These figures include all Coast Guard helicopter operations over the New Orleans metro area regardless of whether the flights originated at from Airstation New Orleans, Houston or Mobile, Alabama, and are almost certainly underreported as some sorties returned to their bases before overtaxed flight operations personnel could collect their data.

Challenging each pilot and flight mechanic to his or her limits, most hoists were completed in obstacle-strewn environments, often on night vision goggles, over power lines and downed trees with daytime temperatures near 100 degrees, often in power-limited aircraft. The conditions encountered by rescue swimmers included flooded houses and buildings, steep, slippery roofs, foul and contaminated water, and the need to hack through attics with axes or break out windows to free survivors. Add to this the urgency felt by all crew to continue rescuing a seemingly endless supply of increasingly desperate survivors as the hot days wore on. Aircrew returned from missions with dozens of rescues on a single sortie. One aircrew completed its day's work with 150 lives saved. Another crew saved 110. Yet another crew returned to base almost dejected, having saved "only" 15 lives. The stories of heroism and initiative these courageous professionals from all over the Coast Guard have to tell are remarkable.

The New Orleans and Mississippi air rescue operation is but one part of a much larger story of the Coast Guard's response to Katrina. Three hundred Coast Guard men and women from 20 different units quickly coalesced at Station New Orleans and rescued or assisted in the rescue of an estimated 22,000 people over ten days with surface assets, in horrendous conditions and with amazing displays of bravery and perseverance. Many of these shipmates lost everything in the flooding.

To those hundreds of devoted Coast Guard men and women who toiled to and beyond the point of exhaustion to keep our helicopters flying, our facilities functional, and to save lives, you have more than upheld the traditions of your predecessors. You embodied our core values of Honor, Respect, and Devotion to Duty. You have earned your place in history. Be proud of your extraordinary accomplishments.

 

 

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