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A captain on the Concord High football team, Wester remains a leader – and a hero – in the Coast Guard – Concord Monitor

ABOVE: U.S. Coast Guard Captain Rick Wester, center, pictured in 2018 during a diversity workshop intended to foster a more inclusive environment and to better prepare cadets as leaders. Wester was recently added to the Academy’s “Wall of Gallantry” in its Hall of Heroes. TOP: A Coast Guard Cutter patrols the Caribbean waters near Cuba. Courtesy of Petty Officer Nicole Foguth
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Two U.S. soldiers carry a Haitian refugee who resisted repatriation on Saturday, Jan. 7, 1995 on a dock in Port-au-Prince. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Boutwell dropped off 289 glum-looking Haitian boat people on the capital pier on Saturday, after their forcible removal from the U.S. military base refugee tent camp in Guantanamo Bay. (AP Photo/Marcelo Salinas) Marcelo Salinas
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A Haitian man with his seven children walks on Saturday, Jan. 7, 1995, past armed Bangladeshi U.N. soldiers on a Port-au-Prince pier towards the Haitian immigration center after being forcibly repatriated from the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba. A U.S. Coast Guard cutter dropped off 289 Haitian boat people on the capital pier on Saturday, after their forcible removal from the U.S. military base refugee tent camp in Guantanamo Bay. (AP Photo/Marcelo Salinas) Marcelo Salinas
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Three U.S. Coast Guards personnel carry Haitian children after leaving the U.S. Coast Guard cuter, Boatwell, at the Port-au-Prince dock, Monday, Jan. 9, 1995. They were among 499 Haitian refugees were who repatriated involuntarily by the U.S. Coast Guard from the refugee camp at the U.S. naval Base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. (AP Photo/Marcelo Salinas) Marcelo Salinas
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A Haitian woman cries as she carries her baby after arriving on a U.S. Coast Guard ship to a dock in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince on Saturday, Jan. 7, 1995. The Coast Guard cutter Boutwell dropped off 289 Haitian boat people on a capital pier Saturday, after their forcible removal from the U.S. military base refugee tent camp in Guantanamo Bay. (AP Photo/Daniel Morel) Daniel Morel
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A Haitian man walks with his seven children Jan. 7, 1995, past armed Bangladeshi U.N. soldiers on a Port-au-Prince pier towards the Haitian immigration center after being forcibly repatriated from the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba. AP file
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Haitian refugees forcibly returned from the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba, walk in front of a line of heavily-armed Bangladeshi U.N. soldiers after arriving to a dock in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 7, 1995. A U.S. Coast Guard cutter dropped off 289 glum-looking Haitian boat people on the capital pier on Saturday, after their forcible removal from the U.S. military base refugee tent camp in Guantanamo Bay. (AP Photo/Marcelo Salinas) Marcelo Salinas
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An U.S. soldier leads a woman carrying her children towards the Haitian immigration processing center after she disembarked the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Boutwell after it docked in Port-au-Prince on Saturday, Jan. 7, 1995. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter dropped off 289 Haitian boat people on the capital pier on Saturday, after their forcible removal from the U.S. military base refugee tent camp in Guantanamo Bay. (AP Photo/Marcelo Salinas) Marcelo Salinas
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Haitian refugees forcibly returned from the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba, walk in front of a line of heavily-armed Bangladeshi U.N. soldiers after arriving to a dock in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 7, 1995. A U.S. Coast Guard cutter dropped off 289 glum-looking Haitian boat people on the capital pier on Saturday, after their forcible removal from the U.S. military base refugee tent camp in Guantanamo Bay. (AP Photo/Marcelo Salinas) Marcelo Salinas
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U.S. Coast Guard personnel carry children off the cutter Valiant after arriving to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday, Jan. 5, 1995 from the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba. The U.S. military prepared Thursday to send thousands of Haitian refugees home from Guantanamo against their will after most rejected an offer of 80 in exchange for their voluntary departure. On this ship, 134 Haitian refugees returned voluntarily. (AP Photo/Marcelo Salinas) Marcelo Salinas
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Aid workers help Haitian refugees disembark a U.S. Coast boat at the main port in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Tuesday, July 27, 1995. The U.S. coast Guard returned 41 Haitians to Haiti Tuesday whom they say were rescued form a sinking sail boat on there way to the United States. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews) Bebeto Matthews
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This undated handout photo provided by the US Coast Guard shows US Coast Guard Cutter Vigilant. Thirty-eight Cuban migrants caught trying to sail to the U.S. are stranded aboard a U.S. Coast Guard vessel, waiting for permission from the Cuban government to return home, The Associated Press has learned. The migrants were among about 96 Cubans who were intercepted at sea and taken aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Vigilant. The Cuban government allowed the return of the other 58 people. (Coast Guard via AP)
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Captain Rick Wester of the United States Coast Guard remembers the smoke and smell within the Pentagon hallways shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.
He recalls the flames from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, and the tension when he shipped to Iraq in 2003, following the U.S. invasion during the War on Terror.
And then there was the baby, a boy. Perhaps a newborn, probably not more than a few weeks old. The captain – once a captain on the Concord High football team – pulled the baby from three feet of water off the coast of Haiti in 1994.
By all accounts, Wester saved his life. He said that that part of his ongoing 30-year career in the Coast Guard stood out, and the heroic deed earned him a spot in the United States Coast Guard’s Wall of Gallantry, announced last month.
“People join the Coast Guard because they’re interested in saving lives, the humanitarian part,” Wester said from his Connecticuct office at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. “Being able to do that in person makes it stand out more.”
There’s a simple and official requirement needed to be inducted into this portion of the Academy’s Hall of Heroes: “A memorial established to honor Academy graduates who performed heroic acts of service during the course of their military careers.”
Bingo. Wester fits nicely there. He was on the Coast Guard ship Escape, part of a team sent to the impoverished country in 1994, during a mass migration of Haitian immigrants to the United States.
And as Wester pointed out, “A law enforcement operation can quickly become a search and rescue operation.”
It did. And it created the sort of challenge Wester wanted. He was a captain, a star, back in the late 1980s at Concord High, teaming with Jason Wimpy to form a monstrous two-headed defensive weapon.
He worked on the Pat’s Peak Ski Patrol and got a taste of helping others. He wasn’t sure what direction to go. A guidance counselor at Concord High suggested joining the Coast Guard.
And as Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead used to sing, “Once in a while, you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”
The Coast Guard was right for Wester. He graduated from the Academy in 1993. He trained on the Eagle, the largest of the Tall Ships fleet, measuring 150 feet high, 295 feet long. In fact, he sailed on it last summer, to Iceland and Ireland and Bermuda.
“A war prize from World War II,” Wester explained. “Formerly a German training vessel, so we took it in ’45 and train cadets there.”
He evolved into a media and public relations director for the Coast Guard, meaning Wester had a pair of challenges, in 2001, then again in ’03.
He was stationed in Washington, D.C., painting his house when Flight 77 crashed into the side of the Pentagon, killing 53. He was dispatched to Ground Zero in New York to coordinate the media inquiries from around the world. He was almost there when he got turned around.
“I was halfway up (Route) 95 in Jersey and they said they had someone from the Coast Guard there, so they needed someone at the Pentagon to man their information center,” he said
He worked 36 straight hours, fairly close to the plane’s impact point. He smelled the smell, saw the smoke.
Two years later, his Cutter was dispatched to Iraq. The crew planted new buoys along a river from Southern Iraq.
Before any of that, however, was the baby. Traffic was heavy in the Caribbean that day in 1994, Navy ships and Coast Guard Cutters gathering immigrants from their creaky boats and onto small Coast Guard boats and then back to the Cutters.
Wester was a Boarding Officer aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Escape. Binoculars showed a horizon of small boats, about 500 yards away.
“By time we get to them,” Wester said, “they had been going for a period of time and they wanted to come on board for water and food, as opposed to an unsafe, overloaded boat.”
With the sun rising, the Escape focused on a particular boat, 18 feet long, that was close by. Wester and his mates then watched the boat capsize in waves that towered six to eight feet that day.
Twenty-six heads bobbed. Wester, not expecting to swim when he awoke that morning, was weighted down with steel-toed boats, bulletproof vest, nine-millimeter Beretta, three magazines, expandable baton, two radios, flashlight and vest that, grabbed in a hurry, was, “Not the type that will keep your head above water, especially if you’re unconscious,” noted Wester.
He’d pay later. He saw the baby. His instincts took over, forcing him into the water. He lifted the boy above the surface with one arm, the other used to keep him afloat. The baby cried almost immediately.
“We knew then,” Wester said.
Then, exhausted, Wester needed help himself, too tired and too heavy to keep his head above sea level for very long.
He needed to be saved. He was pulled up as well, telling me later by text, “I’m thankful for my boat crew members who rescued me that day.”
He was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for rescuing Haitian migrants. Today he’s the assistant superintendent at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.
He trains cadets, teaching leadership skills and physical toughness. Emotional strength is vital, too.
Wester said the baby’s mother was brought aboard later and the two were reunited. He never saw the boy again.
And yet, he still does.
“I can picture it,” Wester said. “It’s been many years, but I certainly have a snapshot in my brain of what happened that day.”
Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.
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