Veterans Day | Vet remembers a career spent protecting American waters

Posted 11/11/20

The moment still stands clear.

“I know exactly when it happened,” Tim Callister said about when he decided he wanted to join the Coast Guard.

“I grew up in Oregon; I had …

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Veterans Day | Vet remembers a career spent protecting American waters


The moment still stands clear.

“I know exactly when it happened,” Tim Callister said about when he decided he wanted to join the Coast Guard.

“I grew up in Oregon; I had attended the Portland Rose Festival with my parents and got a tour of a Coast Guard cutter down at the waterfront in Portland.”

While the young Callister and his family toured the cutter, he looked to an overhead storage area and saw the crew had used the space to store their crab pots and fishing poles. While he wasn’t sure how old he was at the time, Callister says that was his “aha moment.” 

Callister enlisted in 1989 shortly after his 21st birthday, continuing a multi-generational history of family military service.

Still, Callister said he doesn’t believe tradition factored much into his decision.

“Once I got a look at what the Coast Guard did and as I got older, looked into it more, that service fit my personality really well,” Callister said.

He shipped off to boot camp in April of 1989 and upon graduation, was assigned to Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment in Ilwaco.

“That was my first true introduction into the Coast Guard,” he said. “You get to do the exciting things as a new member of the Coast Guard, doing search-and-rescue and life safety, but you also get to clean pots and pans and scrub toilets.”

Callister added that for a new guardsman, any given task can change rapidly from mundane to exciting.

“I literally went from cleaning a bathroom to a search-and-rescue alarm going off, jumping on a boat and conducting CPR, all within a 30-minute period,” he said.

During his two years at Cape Disappointment, Callister crewed a rescue boat (44-foot motor lifeboat) in search-and-rescue responses. The boats he began his career on, Callister added, have since been retired, something he says makes him feel his years.

“That always makes somebody feel old when the boats you used to operate and run on are now in museums,” Callister laughed. “There were other boats but that was our workhorse. Matter of fact, you can see one at the maritime museum in Astoria.”

The senior guardsmen at Ilwaco were often regarded by the new arrivals as the “old guard,” whose competency on the water had been attributed to their years of service responding to emergencies in the area’s rough seas.   

“They had years of knowledge, working primarily in the Pacific Northwest, in the rougher waters. You were very confident in their abilities to teach you, to train you and to get you out and back safely,” Callister said.

Callister recalled a particularly harrowing experience on Jan. 11, 1991, when his crew were called out to assist the 75-foot trawler Sea King. The fishing boat had lost power and was taking on water about four miles northwest of the Columbia River Bar.

As Charles W. Sexton — one of the guardsmen who had responded to the distress call aboard Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat CG-44381 — was rendering aid to a wounded sailor aboard the Sea King, the fishing boat unexpectedly rolled over, trapping him within an enclosed pilot house.   

“We lost a couple of sailors as well as one of our own,” Callister said. “You don’t forget those times, especially when you lose a comrade like that.”

The tragedy, Callister said, drove home the Coast Guard shibboleth of the time: “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” The loss of their fellow guardsman had a profound impact on the crew at Cape Disappointment.   

“That was probably one of the most bonding moments, when you go through those horrible, tragic events,” Callister said.

For his actions, Sexton was posthumously awarded the Coast Guard Medal for extraordinary heroism.   

In 1991, Callister was sent to Governor’s Island in New York City. It was while he was stationed in New York that he was trained as a marine science technician and became versed in pollution response, in particular, oil spills.

In the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, response legislation provided a shot in the arm to programs which targeted oil spill response readiness, Callister said. 

“We would go and we’d have to prioritize what was important and help establish objectives for what needed to be done and made sure that the people who spilled the oil were doing the right thing,” he explained. “If the people who spilled the oil didn’t have the resources or were not taking the proper action, the Coast Guard would step in and get it done. And they still do that today.”

The skills Callister learned while stationed in New York would set the foundation of his professional expertise within the realm of emergency management.

“You’re managing people, you’re managing resources, you’re managing maybe even the media,” Callister said. “There’s a lot of coordination when you’re doing something like that.”

“You have to be a good juggler in any emergency situation,” he added.

Following his time on the East Coast, Callister came back to his home state, this time assigned to the Marine Safety Office in Portland, Oregon.

Callister said he found the work rewarding as he was protecting his home waters from pollution, and hunting down the sources of contaminants from sunken boats along the Oregon coastline.

While stationed in Portland, was sent to Officer Candidate School. After graduating, he was stationed at the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in San Francisco Bay, where he investigated the root causes of regional maritime accidents.

Between 2003 and 2008, Callister was stationed in Anchorage, Alaska where he was in charge of the Sea Marshals, a group of Coast Guard members who board foreign ships and cruise ships for inspections.

“We were just protecting U.S. waters and ensuring that the cargo and people coming into the U.S. were as declared,” Callister said. “We would go out by boat or by helicopter and you would board the vessels with an armed boarding team for an administrative inspection.”

After being stationed again in San Francisco Bay, Callister returned to Seattle in 2012. While working at what would be his final station, he once again returned to pollution response as Chief of Environmental Response for the 13th District in Seattle.

As a program manager, it was Callister’s job to oversee junior guardsmen and guide how they responded to maritime incidents in the region.    

“I really focused on incident management training as well as safety training,” he recalled.

It was at this final duty station that he was able to neatly wrap up his time in the Coast Guard.

“When I was stationed in Portland, Oregon from ’95 to ’99, one of the things I did was I flew to the Coast Guard stations up and down the Oregon Coast and taught hazardous waste operations,” Callister said. “I had worked with members of the Coast Guard’s 13th District in Seattle during that time. Well, lo and behold, years later I am in charge of the same group of people that I used to work with back in the late ’90s.”

“If I had to pick one job in the whole Coast Guard, that would’ve been it, and that’s where I ended up,” he added. “I am so fortunate, I wouldn’t have finished off that career any other way.”    

After 25 years in the Coast Guard, Callister decided in 2016 that the time had come to step away.

Today, Callister offers his expertise as the emergency management officer for Naval Magazine Indian Island, working close to his home in Port Hadlock.

Rather than focusing primarily on oil spills at sea and maritime disasters, Callister plans for the unexpected ashore these days.

“I think Mother Nature is our biggest threat because there are so many variables and we don’t know when it’s going to happen,” he said. “A Cascadia earthquake event is always at the top of my mind.”

After reflecting upon the whole of his career in the Coast Guard, Callister was asked what advice he might offer to a young man or woman considering enlisting in the Coast Guard.

“I didn’t regret a single day of my Coast Guard service. I couldn’t think of a better place to grow up, raise a family.”

There were certainly challenges, he said, “but looking back I wouldn’t change a thing.”


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