At around 3:00 AM about 110 years ago, Rasmus Midgett – a mounted surfman with the US Lifesaving Service – was on a South Patrol the night after the hurricane, San Ciriaco, hit the Outer Banks of North Carolina. In the dark, he heard faint shouting over the winds as he came near the wreck of the Barquentine Pricilla. It had lost all of it’s masts and was awash in the rising tide and pounding surf. There were ten men aboard desperately fighting to stay alive. Surfman Midgett was three miles from his station and alone. He knew that If he went back to the station for help, the men would most likely die waiting the three hours it would take for him and his crew to return. If he stayed to help alone he may very well die himself. But leaving was impossible; it was too late. In that deep and private part of his being Rasmus Midgett, a descendent of castaways and pirates, was noble.
He timed the waves, held his breath against the howling wind, and ran headlong into the sea.
As soon as he heard the cries and saw the wreck he had the only requirements we still use today to launch a rescue. Without a radio or 911, without seeing a flare or hearing a Mayday, he knew the two things that have tugged at the soul of every Coast Guard man and women for over two centuries now. He knew that someone was in trouble and he knew where they were. For over a century before that night and now, over a century later, those two vague requirements are all that spurs us to action: If we know someone is in trouble and we have the slightest idea where they are….we go; no questions.
We go. It is simply what we do and all those kids in boot camp knew it when they joined. We go, and by wearing that uniform and showing up like they did they have said, from deep within themselves that they will go too. Their reasons for going will be the same as Midgett’s. They will go because they can’t help it. They will go because their parents taught them to be honorable. They will go because the desire and the need to help is the best of what is within all of us; it is what drew them to service in the first place.
The Coast Guard motto for over 170 years now has been Semper Paratus (Always Ready) but I feel like it’s true meaning has been lost. We are taught that it means to be prepared with our equipment or prepared with our training to do the jobs that are required of us; prepared by having our assets standing by, ready to launch. But these things are incidental. Being prepared physically, having a boat or helicopter standing by at the ready is a by-product of Semper Paratus. As we move into the new year we should consider again: What does that mean? Always ready for what? For anything? No.
After Hurricane Katrina passed, and the levees broke, no one in the entire Coast Guard was “ready” for what we saw. We were not prepared for what we had to do. We had never done it before and no one would have guessed that we would have to. But, with those two things alone: “someone is in trouble…and…I know where they are.” ; we were , as always….as Rasmus Midgett was, ready – within our hearts at least – to go and to try.
To those of us in the Coast Guard (and this is something that is true of all firefighters, medical responders, and police officers) Semper Paratus is not the condition of ships or aircraft. It is not the level of your training or your skills. It is not what you have but rather what you have inside of you. It is a condition of your heart. It is not something you were taught; it is something – however hard you may have been trying to hide it – that you already are. You are all good, you are all noble, you will all go, and that is what you should be Always Ready for. Semper Paratus means to be always ready for yourself.
This is the Coast Guard’s deepest secret: We don’t really do anything as an organization but find people, who for no other reason than the nobility that drives them, cannot help but to act when they know someone needs them. To my fellow Guardians (and firefighters, and policemen, and first responders of any kind) be proud of yourselves; not for what you do, but for who you are that makes you do it. So take care of your equipment, pay attention to your training and learn all you can from your mentors and leaders. Remember the honor that your parents taught you. Take care of each other and prepare in all the ways that you possibly can; because I know when you hear that faint shouting over the wind you will all hold your breath and run headlong into the sea. Understanding that much about yourselves is what prepares everything else and brings you home.
In the early morning, about 110 years ago, the Keeper of The Gull Shoal lifesaving station, David Pugh, was on the beach keeping the watch to the south. Out of the pre-dawn mist an exhausted Rasmus Midgett came home after having ran alone into the sea ten times. Risking his life alone in the dark and pushing the limits of human endurance for any century; to rescue the last three crewmembers he climbed a rope to the main deck, put the injured men on his shoulders and lowered them into the surf and carried them to shore. Though he would later be awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal for his selfless heroics, the original log entry read humbly as follows:
2:00am August 18th, 1899: Surfman Midgett departs on South Patrol, returned with ten survivors.
God bless his memory. God bless any who have ever worn the uniform. Semper Paratus, and may God bless you too.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Coast Guard.