This Coast Guard lifeguard saved 9 people in a broken boat from freezing to death

Aviation Survival Technician 2 Joshua Carlson wanted to do something “exceptional” with his life. That’s how he knew the Coast Guard was for him.

“I saw the Coast Guard website and saw the guy jump out of the helicopter – I was sold immediately. It was exactly what I wanted to do,” Carlson, who is stationed at U.S. Coast Guard Air Force Base San Diego, told the Military Times.

“Looking back, I don’t really know what was going through my head because I couldn’t swim,” Carlson said.

This is no longer a problem.

Carlson, 30, who saved the lives of nine people suffering from hypothermia on a migrant ship off the coast of southern California, has been selected as the 2022 Coast Guardsman of the Year by the Military Times.

In January 2021, Carlson was on duty when an alarm went off about a broken down panga boat over 100 miles offshore. Carlson’s team was first diverted to another emergency, but then arrived on scene to watch over the disabled ship in case anything went wrong while awaiting approval from the chain of command to accept the mission.

Joshua Carlson
Joshua Carlson said when he joined the Coast Guard he couldn’t swim.
Courtesy of Weston Scott / Militar

“These people are … hypothermic and malnourished,” Carlson said. “And what really got the ball rolling was the fact that they…may be drifting off to San Nicolas Island.”

Once they got the go-ahead, their helicopter landed on the Pearl Harbor Navy dock landing ship to refuel, then took off to hover near the migrant ship.

Carlson fell in the water and swam to the ship where he found 21 people “under the influence of panic”. All but one were equipped with life jackets. The plan was for Carlson to swim with each of them individually so they could be hoisted into a basket in the helicopter.

“Between each person, I was swimming towards the boat, and it was like over 300 yards in heavy waves,” Carlson said. “I came back to the boat after three of them, I was like, ‘Oh no, like, that’s not swimming in a pool. It’s extremely exhausting. ”

Due to a similar incident Carlson was involved in in Corpus Christi, he knew he couldn’t keep swimming to the ship every time, so he insisted that the helicopter be brought closer to the ship for rescues. later.

“They were smart,” he said. “They saw me swimming and one of them was jumping.”

After swimming for an hour and a half, another crew was about to relieve Carlson and his team to rescue the remaining 12 migrants, avoiding crew fatigue and a necessary waiver to continue flying.

“If we absolutely had to, we would have, but there was another crew ready to go to San Diego, like ready to fly and take the rest of the deal,” Carlson said.

Carlson received a unit award for his actions in rescuing the nine migrants, he said. But he noted that everyone he works with is equally competent — the timing just allowed him to go on the mission, he said.

“I just got lucky,” Carlson said. “It’s the simple truth – that guys get good cases on nights of duty, it doesn’t mean anything other than you’re on duty that night. And any of the guys I work with could have be on duty that night and do an even better job than me.

Carlson previously participated in operations for Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Hurricane Florence in 2018. He was awarded the Air Medal for his actions in aid of survivors of Hurricane Harvey and the Medal of Commendation for the Coast Guard for his efforts the following year.

“Physically, it’s the hardest part when there’s a big deal, but it’s also the most rewarding part – when you get to save a life and bring someone home,” Carlson said.

In his spare time, Carlson volunteers with Support the Enlisted Project, a non-profit organization that helps junior enlisted personnel with groceries, diapers, and formula, among other things. He also volunteers with his unit’s lifeguard candidate program as a primary mentor to prepare candidates for the Coast Guard’s Helicopter Lifeguard School.

Carlson joined the service in 2013 and headed to AST “A” school for six months. He had no competitive swimming or water polo experience and admitted he had a steep learning curve to become an aviation survival technician.

“I’m definitely not a natural swimmer like some guys, they take it quick and they go for it,” Carlson said. “It took me a long time.”

His advice to other coast guards who find themselves in an urgent crisis? Do not rush and approach the situation with small goals.

“I’m not thinking of 21 people, I’m thinking of one person at a time and making sure the energy I put into that person is going to add up. … You want to make sure you’re on a working trajectory to complete the mission,” Carlson said.

“If I was giving advice to a new guy, this is what I would say: just slowly, steadily, take it one step at a time…see the big picture,” he said.

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