Patriot Profiles: ‘The greatest threat is the threat we don’t know’

By Jeanne McKinney

It was his daughter’s second Christmas when Coast Guard Commander Jeremy Smith, then based in Clearwater, Fla., responded to a distress call in Key West. He piloted his crew of three in an H-60 helicopter to rescue a mariner, who had cut his femoral artery and was losing blood pressure and blood despite having a tourniquet applied. While a rescue swimmer packed the injured in the litter basket to be flown to the nearest hospital, a family Christmas had to wait.

Emergencies can’t wait at the busy Coast Guard Air Station in Kodiak, Alaska. Bering Sea lows (super storms) cause aviation havoc and can bring even the best pilots down. In Hooper Bay, a 16-year-old girl suffering from a gunshot wound needed a medevac. Battling hurricane-like winds, Smith flew her to Bethel for medical care. When the airport found out that incoming Smith had a patient on board, the tower gave this message to an Alaska jet, also approaching to land (using only instruments).

“The Coast Guard has priority, your call Captain.” The Alaska jet answered, “Alright, we’re going to go around and go back to Anchorage.”

Smith had a close call in another Alaska storm flying to pick up an 18-month-old girl suffering from uncontrollable seizures. A Village Public Safety Officer in New Stuyahok, Alaska, had used up all the medication trying to stabilize her. Smith said, “We flew overland through a blizzard, blinding snow and heavy icing to this remote Alaskan village.”

Radar froze and they couldn’t map — making them lose their bearing. “At one point, we had so much ice in the helicopter we couldn’t stay airborne. We were losing altitude uncontrolled until we got back over the water [where it’s warmer] and got low enough where the ice shut off [stopped building up] and then were able to level out.”

Smith’s passion for flying began at an early age. As a boy, Smith’s family traveled to the Outer Banks, NC where he and a friend loved watching helicopters fly over from Elizabeth City. This youngster from New York would not have expected that he would be flying rescue missions for the Coast Guard. “It was always the flying – that’s why I joined. My friend and I thought it would be fun,” Smith said.

Coast Guard “fun” started out on a cutter. “I drove a 5,000-ton ice-breaker on the Great Lakes before I was selected for flight school,” said Smith, who graduated from Navy Flight School, the USCG transition course and Advanced Helicopter Rescue School. He also earned a safety certificate from the USC School of Engineering and a master’s degree in Safety Science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Smith says from day one, “Nothing has been easy.”

He states, “I never really thought I’d be good, I just decided to do my best and see where that took me.”

His “best” led him to a vast and complex area of scope and control. Now Chief of Response for Sector San Diego, his daily responsibilities are to direct operations with other government agencies for law enforcement (LE), to oversee pollution response (PR) and coordinate search and rescue (SAR) missions.

The fun doesn’t stop there. “I direct flight operations and training of 18 pilots and 45 crew with 3 MH-60 [helicopters] worth $90 million. I also manage five units with 121 members, four patrol boats and six small boats,” Smith said. “Crew safety always comes first.

“Our goal is to continue to protect America’s maritime domain from all adversaries,” Smith said. A recent pursuit and interdiction was a milestone for Smith and Sector San Diego. They worked with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to chase down a panga (Mexican wooden boat) using warning shots and disabling fire from a Response Boat. According to a Coast Guard press release dated Oct. 8, “Two suspected smugglers were taken into custody and 31 bales of marijuana were seized.”

“We know people and drugs are being smuggled across the border — land and maritime. How much, how often…is there a panga running north right now I don’t know about — probably,” Smith said.

“The greatest threat is the threat we don’t know…It’s a big ocean. There’s constant surveillance out there. We’re always looking for the bad guys and when we find them, we start moving ships around — start moving the station around to intercept them.”

What does that mean to Smith? “Doing the best job I can to assist the American people. Whether it is direct support when I’m flying to directing SAR/LE/PR response operations or insuring that members I’m charged with are fully mission ready. I’m responsible for my and their actions.”

His hardest challenge has been leading dedicated Coast Guard men and women who want to perform well. “Making sure they have the correct equipment, training and proficiency is a constant battle,” he said.

Smith said he enjoys watching his crews (air or boat) succeed. “I like to think I had something to do with that.”

Smith knows his 17-year-career has impacted his family the most.

“I’ve missed Christmases, anniversaries, birthdays, first walk, first talk and school events. From the phone ringing at all hours to leaning over in the middle of the night saying to his wife, ‘Remember that thing I was going to do for you in morning? Yeah — that’s not going to happen. I’ve got to go to work now.’”

The rewards of sacrifice come out in a letter from an Alaskan bush pilot, a benefactor of Shallow Water Egress Training (SWET), a Coast Guard technique to get out of an inverted plane in water. Smith helped adapt SWET for local flyers. The pilot wrote, “You guys saved my life…I was able to get myself out.” The Coast Guard motto “So others may live” speaks in the Key West mariner’s outcome. “I know we saved his life and he got to keep his leg as well,” Smith said.

Sacrifice leads to a gunshot teen’s survival, resulting from Smith’s grit to fly in a hurricane when no one else would. Sacrifice reaches beyond duty. Smith won a 2004 CAPT Frank Erickson Heroism Award for successfully navigating a tempestuous blizzard (mentioned earlier in this column) to fly a mom and her toddler, wracked with seizures, to advanced medical care.

Smith says, “My wife keeps asking what’s next. I’ll do my best and when my best isn’t good enough we’ll go from there. I’ll take a lot of good experiences and hopefully my mark will be teaching kids about what I went through so they don’t have to go through it. So they can make better decisions to keep their crews safe and maybe find the next way to fix a problem I couldn’t fix.”