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Fins in the water
by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn
“I took the injured woman first,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Evan Thigpen, an aviation survival technician (AST) at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City (ASEC), North Carolina. “We were doing fast-basket recoveries to the helicopter, but I had drifted 40 yards from the vessel. After each hoist I had to swim this distance, if not further. I had the second survivor carry the small dog - again an easy hoist, but long swim back. The last survivor held a cat in its carrier while I towed him. Upon entering the water from the sailing vessel I immediately lost my left fin and couldn't recover it.”
Coast Guard ASTs like Thigpen, more commonly known to the public as rescue swimmers, are responsible for some of the most dangerous components of search-and-rescue missions. This often puts them on the deck of vessels in distress or in the water with survivors in life-threatening situations. The Coast Guard equivalent to boots on the ground, ASTs are fins in the water.
Despite losing one fin, Thigpen saved three people, a dog and a cat from the disabled sailboat off Cape Charles, Virginia, Oct. 22, 2014.
“Towing survivors is physically strenuous in calm seas with two fins,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Roderick Ansley, one of Thigpen’s supervisor’s in the rescue swimmer shop at ASEC. “Accomplishing this with one fin, in large, breaking seas is nothing less than a miraculous feat of dedication, courage and self discipline.”
Thigpen is known among his leaders and peers for his superior performance under pressure during search and rescue missions, but to truly explore his reputation, one needs to dive a bit deeper than that.
“He is a true quiet professional,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Claude Morrissey, Thigpen’s shift supervisor at ASEC. He’s always willing to work late and take extra duty. He’s always willing to support the air station in any way that he can. He is truly just a great all-around guy.”
“I was first stationed in Seattle aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Midgett, a 378-foot ship,” explained Thigpen. “That’s when I first met an aircrew, deployed to our ship from Kodiak, Alaska. I admired them for being humble and professional. I wanted to become an AST, because of what we stand for. We're all in the job to help people. We're a tight brotherhood that puts trust and faith in one another. It doesn't matter who gets a big SAR case or who is getting a lot of recognition. Every day is just another duty day and it's our job. I know that anyone in my shop, or any swimmer in the Coast Guard would never give up.”
On Nov. 27, 2014, 100 miles off Cape Hatteras North Carolina, Thigpen was called upon again when a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew responded to an injured man aboard a sailboat after midnight. Thigpen was lowered to the boat and swam the injured man in 12-foot swells to the helicopter cable where the survivor was hoisted, by sling, to safety.
Since then, he’s performed three medevac cases, the most recent of which occurred 200 miles off the North Carolina coast July 6.
Originally from Vero Beach, Florida, Thigpen grew up surfing, swimming and watching the Coast Guard drive by in boats and fly by in helicopters and planes. “I joined the Coast Guard to help people in need and hopefully make an impact,” said Thigpen. “I have always especially admired the Coast Guard’s search and rescue mission.”
Though rescue swimmers arguably receive more recognition than any other Coast Guard profession, Thigpen doesn’t let that go to his head.
“I've only been in the rate two years and there is so much to learn in this job field,” said Thigpen. "The best thing a new person can do is soak up knowledge. We have very experienced ASTs in our rate who have a lot to offer. I have yet to meet one who hasn't made an impact on me. My senior ASTs are mentors for how to make me a better AST. I'll learn more from them about real life situations than I can learn from any manual or course."
Chief Petty Officer Shannon Brugh, lead AST in ASEC’s swimmer shop, said Thigpen was recently nominated by ASEC command to represent the Coast Guard at the 2015 North Carolina United Service Organization’s 10th Annual Salute to Freedom Gala for his life-saving actions in October and November in 2014.
“Evan was chosen for his heroic actions on a pair of search and rescue cases,” said Brugh. “Apart from that, he is the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back and bend over backward to accommodate personal requests. He always has a smile on his face and never anything negative to say. He’s a very positive person who I can tell enjoys coming to work on a daily basis.”
"Every time I mention how proud I am of something Evan has done at work, he tells me it’s no big deal, it's his job," said Hunter James, Thigpen's girlfriend of about two years. "He’s so selfless, driven, caring and determined, and does the best he can no matter what."
“As swimmers, we get a lot of attention,” said Thigpen. “What people don’t always think about is the entire Coast Guard behind us, doing their jobs so we can do ours. Without the pilots flying us out there, the flight mechanics lowering us from the helicopter, without the support personnel making sure we have fuel and gear, we couldn’t do what we do. We’re all part of the same Coast Guard team.”