On the wings of an Eagle

The journey of nine Gold Star Teens aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Eagle

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The majestic eagle. The beautiful and powerful symbol of our country. Our country’s most majestic sailing ship, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, a square-rigged, three-masted barque, shares the name. The cadet training ship has been designated “America’s Tall Ship” and is indeed as beautiful as an eagle.

As an Ocean State Gold Star Teens Sailing Adventure counselor, I recently sailed aboard the Eagle from New York City to Baltimore.

Gold Star Teens are teens whose father, mother or sibling died in the line of duty during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most suffer quietly in suppressed grief. For some, professional counseling has helped; for others it hasn’t.

They all benefit from engaging in fun activities with other Gold Star Teens, activities that give them a chance for informal peer-to-peer interactions during which they can privately discuss their grief, its effect on their lives, and how they deal with it. It is a truly cathartic and healing experience for these youngsters to understand that they are not alone.

Ocean State Gold Star Teens Sailing Adventure was started in 2014 by two Army Special Forces officers.  We soon partnered with Seamanship and Leadership Training for Youths (SALTY) since our missions are similar – introducing youngsters to the world of sailing. SALTY concentrates on Scouting and YMCA youths; Gold Star Teens exists solely for teens who have lost a parent or sibling to military operations.

In mid-August nine Gold Star Teens – five girls and four boys, two counselors and two adult volunteers –boarded USCGC Eagle in New York City. The ship had just completed its summer training cycle for Coast Guard Academy cadets and had pulled into NYC two days earlier for crew liberty before heading to Baltimore for upkeep maintenance.

Captain Matthew Meilstrup, the Eagle’s commanding officer, had met David Pickering, executive director of SALTY, at a tall ships conference and had extended an invitation for Gold Star Teens to sail aboard the Eagle.

The nine teens ranged in age from a 13-year-old California girl who lost her father, to an 18-year-old boy from New York who lost a brother. The teens’ registrations included answers to questions  about why they wanted to sail with similar teens.

A young lady whose father was killed in Iraq answered, “...because I have yet to find those who have been through the same experiences I have.”

Another teen who lost a brother in Iraq wrote: “I would like to meet other kids my age that understand what I am going through and have been through.”

And a third who also lost his father answered: “To meet lots of new friends that are like me and people who I can actively express my feelings to.”

Day One:

The teens toured the USS Intrepid, a retired aircraft carrier that now serves as an air and space museum.  They saw vintage planes from WWII, Vietnam and the Cold War; a capsule from the Mercury space program and the original space shuttle Enterprise.

That evening the teens toured mid-town Manhattan and One World Trade Center, the site of the 9/11 memorial and the Freedom Tower. They were especially respectful as they gazed upon the reflecting pool with the engraved names of every person who died on that fateful day in 2001. 

The teens visited the One World Observatory atop the Freedom Tower and were amazed at the 360-degree views of New York City at twilight from the vantage of the building’s 102nd floor. Even returning to the Eagle on the New York City subway was a powerful, first-time experience for many of the teens.  

The exhausted teens found their racks (bunks) were designed for Coast Guard cadets and were tiny, with only 16 inches from mattress to the bottom of the rack above. Fortunately, the nine teens were all in decent physical shape and could pretty easily turn over once inside the bunks.

Day Two:

Reveille sounded at 6:30 a.m. After quick hygiene, nine still-exhausted, sleepy-eyed teens stumbled into the mess deck (dining hall).

Also aboard for the sail from NYC to Baltimore were several Sea Scouts, some SALTY members and several members of the crew’s families. 

“School of the Ship” was conducted to orient civilian guests to the ship’s rules, practices and, especially, its emergency procedures and equipment. The teens went through various drills, including lifeboat drills. They learned about the “fo’c’sle" (foredeck), “waist” (mid deck) and “fantail” (aft deck) and that the ship is 295 feet long, 39 feet wide, has 24 sails of 22,150 square feet, displaces 1816 tons and was a prize of war taken from Germany at the end of WWII – built in 1936 as the “Horst Wessel.”

Cast off occurred at 2 p.m. The teens saw unbelievable sights leaving NYC, including the world-renowned Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

Soon land was far behind and so was internet and cellphone coverage. No more lifelines to parents and friends. Some teens had experienced clinical depression or anxiety and two suffered from ADHD or OCD. This trip was, in part, an effort to instill in them independence and restore their innate sense of adventure. Loss of the artificial lifelines was essential. 

The Captain had planned to set sails once in the Atlantic’s open waters. To see the Eagle in full sail mode is something that few will ever forget. Unfortunately, the wind was insufficient for rigging sails. 

Later, while the ship was under full power with the masts listing back and forth several degrees, the Captain declared “up and over” time. Teens and adults were allowed to climb 100 feet of rigging to the “trees,” (crow’s nest).

Six teens accepted the challenge. It was scary watching them climb as the mainmast at the center of the rigging tilted back and forth – taking the rigging with it – and all without harnesses! Teens had clips to secure to the rigging if they grew tired and stopped, or if they felt nauseous, but otherwise had no safety lines.

After reaching the top of the rigging where it met the mainmast, the remaining ten feet required climbing at an outward, 30-degree angle to the mast – in essence climbing while hanging backwards. After reaching the crow’s nest, the teens had to climb down the rigging on the opposite side maneuvering through the 30-degree back angle again before descending to the deck.  

An adult volunteer, Rick Nelson, and I also made the climb. The “up and over” portion with the 30-degree back angle was indeed frightening. 

During the following three days at sea, the six intrepid teens would climb the rigging many more times. 

That night, after a delicious meal provided by some of the best cooks in the Coast Guard, a movie on the mess deck, cleaning their berthing quarters and a shower, the teens climbed into the tiny racks for a second night of rest.

Day Three:

The teens were split into watch sections to learn by standing watch with the ship’s crew at key stations - the helm, navigation, lookout, line handling and “mess cooking,” meaning helping the cooks with menial chores.  They also attended CPR and celestial navigation classes.

Between watches, teens had free time to explore the ship, ask questions of the crew and take pictures. Most important, the teens were able during this free time to gather in small groups or in pairs and discuss whatever was on their minds, including how they were dealing with the loss of a parent or sibling. 

It is one thing for such teens to talk to a surviving parent or a professional counselor about their grief, it is quite another for them to be able to talk to other teens who are experiencing the same feelings of grief, anxiety and, in some cases, depression. Suddenly, they are not alone in their grief.

Still, however, there was no wind and no sails. The Captain joked that we had brought the “doldrums,” lengthy periods of no wind during a sailing voyage.

That afternoon teens on the fantail watched as a school of dolphins swam alongside the Eagle for several minutes, delighting the camera-wielding youngsters.

Day Four:

The teens were coming together wonderfully. Sharing their backgrounds seemed to cementing bonds that could well become lifetime friendships.

They were exploring the many sections of the ship, playing games, watching movies together on their laptops and just sitting in groups talking and laughing. Even the two teens who were more introverted began to interact with the other teens.

Now headed west there was still very little wind. Again no sails. So the Eagle motored on toward Baltimore.    

A damage control training session involved the teens stopping a 100-psi flow of sea water in a busted pipe.  Teams had to apply a rubber mats and bolt metal sleeves to the breaks as the gushing water soaked them, making them appreciate what the sailors face when a pipe bursts at sea. 

Late afternoon the Eagle dropped anchor for the night near an island. With the temperature in the mid-80s, the Captain declared “swim call”. The teens played Tarzan, again and again, by swinging from a yardarm rope and dropping from about 30 feet into the sparkling water.       

At sunset, ship’s officers gave teens permission to climb the rigging once again. The XO calmed my fears about visibility when she told me that young cadets climb the rigging at all hours of the night.     

So, with bosuns supervising, four of our teens, to include our one 13-year-old girl, climbed again to the crow’s nest to watch the sunset from an altitude those of us on the deck could only envy.

Day Five:

Pouring rain and still no favorable wind.   

The other counselor, Patty Ryan, also a retired Army Colonel, led the teens through several team-building and communications exercises culminating with a group discussion about things few people know about.  Surprising facts surfaced that were not expected based on assumed personalities. Designed to get the teens used to talking about things they seldom talk about, it allowed some teens to voluntarily bring up how they had kept things inside and refused to talk to surviving parents and counselors about their grief. They were clearly ready to discuss these things with their grieving peers.

We had delayed this exercise until the teens had developed friendship bonds. Now friends, they would continue their discussions in peer-to-peer interactions without counselors present. That’s the exact result Ocean State Gold Star Teens Sailing Adventure intends to achieve.

Around 4:00 p.m. the Eagle anchored off Annapolis, Md. with the Naval Academy and Rick Nelson’s sailing school on the distant shore.

The Captain surprised the teens after dinner by presenting each a personalized Eagle plaque, mementos of a trip they will remember for the rest of their lives.

 

Day Six:

 

During the final approach to Baltimore, the teens took photos and had their last visits with members of the ship’s crew who had befriended them. 

Motoring under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the top of the Eagle’s mainmast cleared the bottom of the bridge by less than two feet – incredibly close for a 295-foot vessel.

Docking and lunch, then time for the teens to test their “land legs.” After four days of almost constant 4-5 degree rolls, some expected difficulty walking on land. Fortunately, only one teen took a few minutes to regain her land legs.

That afternoon we went duck pin bowling, new to all of the teens. With five inch balls far different from large ten pin balls, the results were hilarious. Laughter, joking and safe horse play were the order of the day. To an outsider, it would appear the teens had been friends for years instead of days.

Later was an evening at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles. Rick Nelson had obtained tickets behind the Orioles dugout with access to the club area. Teens loved the club and its air-conditioned comfort while enjoying food and beverages.

A very exciting game ensued. In the bottom of the ninth with the Angels up 7-5, the Oriole’s Manny Machado came to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded. Machado hit the baseball Holy Grail – a walk-off, grand slam home run – giving the Orioles a 9-7 win. There were fireworks afterward, both literally and figuratively.

Day Seven:

The teens toured the U.S. Naval Academy where they saw beautiful grounds, great architecture, the academy museum and John Paul Jones’s crypt, followed by lunch with two midshipmen. 

After touring downtown Annapolis, we headed for Rick’s Annapolis Sailing School where instructors took the teens sailing on small sail boats. They also enjoyed kayaking, paddle boarding and swimming. Afterward, Rick and his wife Jennifer hosted a sumptuous cook out for the teens and staff.   

Our plan to overnight aboard the retired Coast Guard cutter Taney in Baltimore’s inner harbor had to be changed due to a misunderstanding during planning. 

Gold Star Teens had run out of donated funds for the trip, but our partner organization, SALTY, fronted funds for lodging the teens and staff at a BWI hotel. Gold Star Teens hopes to receive enough donations in the coming months to repay SALTY and to finance our sailing adventures next year.

One teen had already departed, leaving four girls and four boys. The misfortune of the Taney was one of the best things that could have happened. The girls shared a double queen room while the boys shared a similar room. Some put blankets on the floor, others chose the beds. The closeness that had developed between the teens was heightened by the last night’s sleeping arrangement. The teens loved it!

Day Eight:   

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. After breakfast the teens gathered in the lobby for shuttles to the airport. There were many hugs, happy tears and promises to stay in touch.

Conclusion:

President Abraham Lincoln spoke eloquently about how our nation might heal the wounds of war when he vowed “…to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”    

There are many things Americans can do to help our country live up to this presidential promise. Caring for wounded troops, helping families of deployed troops, buying a meal occasionally for a service member, or simply thanking them for their service.

There is nothing more satisfying, however, than helping the child of a service member who has given his or her life to protect our freedoms. That father or mother can no longer help the child, no longer play with the child, no longer mentor and shape the minds and personalities of these grieving children.

While most people haven’t the time to accompany Gold Star Teens on trips like this one, almost everyone can donate to one of the many causes that help such teens and younger children.

For more information about Gold Star Teens and its partner, Seamanship and Leadership Training for Youths (SALTY), and for information on how you or your company can donate to this extremely worthy cause, please visit http://saltysailingadventures.org/gold-star-teens.

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