May 19, 2002 – The normally quiet U.S. Coast Guard dock at King's Wharf on the Charlotte Amalie waterfront was jam-packed Saturday with everything from Junior Firefighters to a U.S. Army Humvee to Planning and Natural Resources Department personnel handing out free grilled hot dogs and hamburgers to a steady line of hungry takers.
Coast Guard officers in crisp blue uniforms were leading children and adults to boat tours or recruiting stations or a National Park Service display. Coast Guard Auxiliary personnel were explaining what they do, and everybody, in one way or another, was celebrating National Boat Safety Week.
The Red Cross gave CPR demonstrations, and both St. Thomas Rescue and VISAR, its British Virgin Islands counterpart, gave first aid demonstrations. The VISAR unit of about 10 men arrived in an oversized bright orange inflatable dinghy. They left amid signal flare demonstrations which had the dock encased in heavy orange smoke and bursts of light, much like a fireworks display.
Taking it all in were youngsters from all over St. Thomas enjoying the scene as if it were a playground put together just for them as they asked questions and munched hot dogs.
One youngster, 14-year-old Veron Smith, an eighth grader from New Horizons Alternative School, was on the answering end of a lot of questions. "I go around to all the schools to tell the kids about pollution," the almost-6-foot teen-ager says. "I tell them about Inky, the whale who almost died. Inky got caught and wrapped up in plastic debris on a Florida beach and almost choked to death."
The whale "beached himself. People on the beach rescued him and he was healed and released back into the ocean," Veron says, "but he could have died." He adds, "It's important that kids understand not to pollute, and how it can harm everybody."
There are a couple of question that younger children ask him repeatedly: Why was the whale named Inky? "Because of the ink he dispels to camouflage himself." And why do people pollute if it hurts them? "Because they are careless and they are lazy."
Veron's mentor comes by. "Oh, I see you've met Veron. He's almost one of us," says Coast Guard recruiting officer Dixon Mercado-Soltero. The teen-ager, wearing a navy Coast Guard Auxiliary T-shirt. confirms, "I'm going to join the Coast Guard as soon as I'm old enough."
He seems to know a lot of the USCG and auxiliary officers at the exposition. Mercado-Smith is from San Juan and says he loves his job. A cook before he became a recruiter, he says, "We have the best food, real milk not powdered like the Navy, and the best sleeping quarters." He continues, "We have to have good food — we're on the boats all the time, and we are always ready for the next emergency."
The emergencies are far-ranging, from drug busts to roundups of illegal immigrants to search and rescue operations to basic shore protection in case of incidents. Mercado-Smith loses some of his enthusiasm discussing the loss of accreditation by the territory's public high schools. "It's not the kids' fault," he says. A high school diploma or GED equivalent is required to join the Coast Guard, he says, adding, "We have officers working on that problem right now. For the time being we are still giving everybody the tests. We will wait and see what happens."
The Coast Guard typically gets eight or 10 recruits from the Virgin Islands each year, men and women, he says. "I just saw Jennifer Snodgrass, who I drafted two years ago from here," he notes. "She's not from St. Thomas, but her husband is. She loves the C.G. She is a marine science technician now."
Highlights of the day were two air-sea rescue demonstrations by a Coast Guard helicopter and a real "person in trouble" provided by DPNR. Although the day was sunny, the water was choppy, providing more exciting rescues than may have been planned. Youngsters stood on the dock in open-mouthed awe as the "victim" clung to the rescue rope dangling from the chopper.
Interspersed between these demonstrations were mock drug chases in the harbor, also made more exciting by the choppy seas, and tours of the USCG cutter Jefferson Island.
The University of the Virgin Islands had set up one of its displays from the Non-Point Source Pollution Conference held the preceding two days on St. John. It showed how water runoff affects marine life, utilizing a plastic model about 2 feet high showing the flow of water as it comes down from the hills to the sea.
Mercado-Soltero reminded the public that to find out more about joining the Coast Guard, one need only call 800- GET-USCG.
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