What’s the Coast Guard Doing in Kentucky?

by Beth Dugger Brown–

The bridge of the 75-foot Class River Buoy Tender CHENA.

No matter what you may have heard, the Coast Guard is a branch of the United States military and has been since August 4, 1790. President Washington had a hand in creating it. The modern era of the Coast Guard began on Jan. 28, 1915 when President Wilson signed into law the “Act to

The CHENA pushes a barge equipped with a crane which is used during ATON maintenance.

Create the Coast Guard.” It combined the Life Saving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service. The Coast Guard saves lives, protects the environment, defends the homeland, and enforces federal laws on the high seas, the nation’s coastal waters and the waterways. This is unique in the nation and the world.

When I think of the Coast Guard, I think of the movie, “The Guardian.” Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher are rescue swimmers stationed in Alaska. It’s intense! I think of swift boats chasing down drug smugglers in the ocean or executing rescues in the sea between Cuba and Florida. All of these endeavors are important; however, we have 19 men in Hickman, Kentucky, who are just as vital as anyone else in the Coast Guard. Are you surprised to have military stationed in Hickman? I was, too.

You might wonder, like I did, what exactly is the Coast Guard doing set up in the middle of the country? I made a few inquiries.

First, I spoke with a friend of mine, Todd Fletcher. My family met the Fletcher family when they moved here from Alaska. Besides being just excellent friends and fabulous Christian examples, Todd was the Executive Petty Officer aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter CHENA from December 2009 to June 2013. He was responsible for overseeing the units’ personnel administration, finances, training, and operations. The CHENA is based out of Hickman Harbor and has as its primary mission the maintenance of floating and shore-based Aids to Navigation (ATON) in the northern reaches of the Lower Mississippi River. During Todd’s time at the unit, the cutter had an all enlisted crew of 13 men.

Aids to Navigation (ATON) are maintained by the Hickman, kentucky Coast guard Station. The Buoys weigh 500 pounds. The rocks they are anchored by weigh 1,500 pounds.

In order to understand how vital the maintaining of the ATON is to your daily life, here it is in Todd’s own words:

“These men are responsible for maintaining a safe shipping channel on the Lower Mississippi River that allows for the transport of millions of dollars worth of raw materials to the heartland. In addition, they provide a safe and navigable channel for national defense forces to gain access to this region in times of emergency or heightened security.”

Without the men keeping the shipping channels safe, the barges that carry coal, gravel, concrete, grain and everything else that you find on a barge, could run aground in the mighty Mississippi. That would definitely put a kink in commerce around here and across the entire nation.

To gain more insight on how they accomplish their mission, I packed up my photographer and drove over to the station. The current Executive Petty Officer, Jason Stott, was not available, but he set us up with one of his men. We were so fortunate to be able to spend time with Adam Figueroa. Adam is a Seaman Apprentice (SA). He comes to us from Murphy, North Carolina. He was born in Miami, Florida. I had to ask him how a person in the Coast Guard finds themselves in Hickman. He confessed that he requested three other stations and was surprised that instead of Miami, California, or Hawaii he was assigned to seemingly landlocked Kentucky. He has been in the Coast Guard for less than one year, and this is his first station to be assigned to. He recently turned 19. He came across a recruiter at his sister’s college and decided that since he knew he wanted to be in the military, the Coast Guard was the branch he needed to go into.

I wasn’t sure what an ATON looked like, but I soon found out. I knew they were some sort of buoys, but I was picturing something smallish for some reason. These buoys weigh 500 pounds, and they are anchored by a 1,500 pound rock. I was amazed that despite weighing one ton, these buoys are still moved around enough to require bi-monthly trips by the CHENA crew to keep the shipping channels marked.

The CHENA takes care of the Mississippi River shipping channels from Cairo, Illinois down to River Styx Landing, Arkansas. The tricky part to the ATON maintenance is that they can only work going up river. They use the current to their advantage.

We were given the full tour of the CHENA, and if you ever get the chance to be on one of the Coast Guard’s cutters, you should check it out. Make sure you wear your ladder climbing shoes! We saw everything, from down in the engine room to all the way up to the bridge. I was absolutely impressed with their vessel. I learned that the more seniority you have, you get the better bunks. And if you are the cook, you get the window. Instead of any kind of hydraulics system, they use an air system. The engine room requires double hearing protection when they are under way. And these Coasties really like to eat. If we are ever under siege, and I can get there, I will be hanging out in their kitchen.

You might come across my friend new friend Adam at E.W. James and Sons Supermarket in Union City, Tennessee. He goes there with the cook about once a month and loads up six shopping carts to take back to the station. He said he enjoys doing that.

We also got to speak with Kevin Acevedo, who is a Fireman Apprentice (FA). He is from Miami and has been in Hickman for about two months. He was telling me about the icebreaker ships that the Coast Guard uses around the world. As a Coast Guard member, you can sign up for sea voyages that span several months.

The Coast Guard is a fairly diverse group. Members can hang out in Alaska and rescue people out of the Bearing Sea (that’s what Kevin Costner’s character in “The Guardian” says, anyway). You can go to Hawaii, Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, New York or probably most any other region of the country. Or you can go out to sea – way out. All the choices are an adventure.

If you happen to be in Hickman and see any Coast Guardsmen out and about, tell them you appreciate what they do. Take them out to lunch or see if they want to go hunting with you. They are great guys and are tasked with a mission that impacts your life every day.