Last July a Coast Guard helicopter carrying four people from Air Station Sitka crashed in Washington state. Three on board died and a fourth crew member was injured. In Sitka, candlelight vigils were held and memorial signs went up in storefront windows. And hundreds of Sitkans attended the public memorial held a few days later.

Coast Guard Captain Norman Custard is Chief of Staff for Coast Guard District 17, which covers all of Alaska. At a reception after Saturday’s award ceremony, he said the response the to crash demonstrated the love Sitka has for the Coast Guard, but the process of designating Sitka a “Coast Guard City” began long before the tragedy.

Custard pointed to small, everyday things that make Sitka stand out.

“Common courtesy,” he said. “The courtesies of just saying hello to each other on the street. You walk down the street and everybody’s got a smile on their face, they all say hello to each other, they help each other out.”

Mayor Cheryl Westover put it this way:

“There is no them and us attitude about Sitka’s Coast Guard,” she said during the award ceremony. “Staff and families are fully integrated into Sitka life – in our schools, in our sports, our community organizations, and commissions. And as neighbors and friends.”

No them-versus-us attitude might have been meant figuratively by the mayor, but Air Station Sitka Commander Doug Cameron says sometimes it’s meant literally too. During Sitka’s Fourth of July celebration, there was a contest between the Coast Guard and the Fire Department, to see who could push a metal barrel further using firehoses. Cameron joked about a problem he had right before the contest.

“There are so many Air Station Sitka people that are members of the fire department that I show up at the fire station to divide into teams and everybody’s torn,” Cameron said. “There are some people who are members of the fire station and the air station, and it’s like, well, who are you representing today?”

Cameron himself coaches Little League here. He says beyond day-to-day life in Sitka, the feeling Coast Guard personnel get from the community keeps them here, or brings them back.

“Everybody wants to come here,” he said. “Everybody likes the unit, everybody likes the town, they like Alaska, and so it attracts the best and brightest in the Coast Guard. They love living here. I love living here. Alaska’s the only place that when I’m stationed someplace else, I miss. It feels more like home than any place else to me.”

The proclamation designating Sitka a Coast Guard City came from Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert Papp, but was presented Saturday by Congressman Don Young.

“I’m especially fond of the Coast Guard. I’ve dealt with you for the last 55 years since I’ve been in Alaska. As a captain of a boat, sometimes you’ve made me very angry,” he said, to laughter from the Coast Guard personnel. “Sometimes I’ve thanked you. All the time, I have supported you.”

All kidding aside, Young said the Coast Guard does important work that’s essential to life in Alaska.

“Each day we have someone who goes to sea. Someone is lost. Someone has a perilous position as far as high seas. Somebody’s moving into our water that shouldn’t be: You’re there,” Young said. “You’re constantly on alert, and you’re doing the job for this great state and this great nation, and for that, I thank you.”
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