Happy Coast Guard Day!
Way back on August 4, 1790, at the behest of then Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, Congress created the precursor to the United States Coast Guard. Today, most people associate the branch with water-based search and rescue operations, but during its early years the branch was mainly responsible for enforcing the tariff laws that provided the young nation with its main source of revenue.
For the first 200 years of the republic, the area surrounding the Destin/Fort Walton Beach area didn’t have a Coast Guard station of its own. Although the government established a 40-man station in Grayton Beach to stand watch during World War II, the temporary facility closed when the war ended. It wasn’t until 1976 that the Destin area earned a permanent station of its own.
According to Ken Wright, a retired Coast Guard officer and a member of the Niceville High School Class of 1978, local residents can thank legendary Northwest Florida congressman Bob Sikes for the establishment of what many Coasties refer to as “Station Vacation.”
“He had a soft spot for the Coast Guard, and he wanted a station of his own in his district,” Wright said.
Although he was never assigned to Station Destin, Wright has his own soft spot for the base, where he was sworn in back in 1979.
“Recently, my family came full circle when I was able to swear in my daughter at the station,” Wright said.
The official motto of the Coast Guard is ‘Semper Paratus,’ or ‘Always Prepared.’ Boastswain’s Mate First Class James Currence, the training petty officer at Station Destin, said the 20 to 25 men and women assigned to the station live up to that motto by providing a wide array of services beyond the more than 200 search and rescue operations they performed over the past year.
“We’re responsible for guarding the waterways about 50 miles out from the coast,” he explained. “We support law enforcement with drug interdictions, anti-terrorism operations, and environmental protection. We work very closely with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, Destin Fire and Rescue, and other law enforcement agencies.”
In addition, the crew of Station Destin support community programs such as boating safety training, participate in military honor guards at official ceremonies and even provide dignified burials at sea for veterans. And while they spend much of their time saving other people’s lives, on March 30, 1981, the station suffered a tragedy of its own.
At 5:55 that morning, Petty Officer Lonnie Jones and two crewmates responded to a report of a capsized sailboat in the East Pass. While navigating through dense fog and high winds, the Coast Guard vessel was struck by a 15-foot wave, causing it to capsize. While his crewmates were able to swim to shore, Jones suffered from hypothermia in the 52-degree water and drowned.
Wright, who was serving at Coast Guard Station Mobile at the time of the accident, worked for decades to establish a memorial to Jones at Station Destin. His dream was realized on April 2, 2016, 35 years after the tragedy.
“Lonnie is the only person to die in the line of duty at Station Destin,” Wright said. “He deserves to be remembered.”
In 1995, Station Destin took the full brunt of Hurricane Opal. Wright was serving at Station New Orleans at the time and was responsible for inspecting all of the Coast Guard stations in the Southeastern United States.
“Opal did a lot of damage,” Wright recalled. “It was bittersweet for me to come back to my hometown area and see that.”
Time and several other storms have inflicted their share of damage as well. According to Currence, the facility is currently undergoing significant renovations.
“We’re working to improve our boathouse and our crew facilities,” he said.
Currence said that Station Destin will celebrate Coast Guard Day with a small morale building event.
“We’ll cook some food, play some games, that sort of thing,” he said. “It’ll be a nice day. We’ve got a great view out here.”
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