Getting to Know the Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard is often the most overlooked of the Armed Forces’ five branches. It is perpetually on active duty, yet rarely makes headlines (though the branch did pop into the news late last month with a daring rescue in the early stages of Superstorm Sandy).

But the military’s underdog is always there when you need them, rain or shine.

The Coast Guard has a storied history. Formed in 1790 by Alexander Hamilton to prevent smuggling and enforce trade laws, the 200-year-old branch has participated in 16 wars and conflicts (up to and including Operation Iraqi Freedom).Duties of the US Coast Guard

In 2011, the branch had more than 43,000 active duty members, more than 7,800 reservists, more than 8,300 civilian employees and nearly 33,000 civilian volunteers in the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Doing double duty

Since 1915, the branch has operated as part of both the departments of Defense (Navy) and Homeland Security; that’s something that sets it apart from the other four branches of the Armed Forces.

The branch has 11 peacetime missions, all related to maritime safety, security and stewardship. It prevents smuggling, drug trafficking and illegal immigration, enforces environmental protection laws, provides navigation aid and engages in frequent search and rescues.

To the rescue

As a whole, the Coast Guard saves an average of 12 lives each day, investigates 13 marine accidents, responds to 64 search-and-rescue cases and keeps 842 pounds of cocaine off the streets.

The Marines have Semper Fi, while the Army stands Army Strong. Semper paratus is the official motto of the Coast Guard, meaning “always ready.” Wondering about the Coast Guard’s racing stripe? The red, white and blue “Service Mark” painted on all Coast Guard cutters, boats and aircrafts was designed and adopted in 1964. Of course, there’s plenty more Coast Guard traditions.

In popular culture

Are you a current or former member of the Coast Guard? You’re in good company. A few famous Coasties include: pro golfer Arnold Palmer, author Alex Haley, broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite and actor Humphrey Bogart, to name a few.

The branch also lists cartoon characters Donald Duck, Pluto and Popeye among its celebrity members.

The Coast Guard is still working on its 15 minutes of fame. But you might have noticed references to the branch in dramatic scenes from movies such as Top GunThe Perfect Storm and Jaws.

Want to see the Coast Guard in actual action? Two programs on The Weather Channel, Coast Guard Florida and Coast Guard Alaska, chronicle the work of units posted in those regions.

Photo courtesy of norfolkdistrict.