Wil Milam dresses Kenai Rotarian Jason Carroll in the rescue swim gear from helmet to fins that must be put on in less than 3 minutes by Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Bering Sea is one of the most unforgiving, harsh and dangerous places in the world. Although the risk is high, many mariners and fishermen depend on it for their livelihood. But in the dark winter months, when things can quickly go from bad to worse, as evidenced by the recent sinking of the Alaska Ranger, they rely on the Coast Guard to be there. For Petty Officer 1st Class Wil Milam an aviation survival technician, better known as a rescue swimmer, his lifesaving actions in the midst of a brutal winter storm in February 2007, earned him a prestigious award and public recognition for heroic achievement.
Jeff Belluomini presents Petty Officer 1st Class Wil Milam with a Paul Harris Fellowship at Kenai Rotary meeting.
The award recounts Milam’s actions as an individual when the 42 foot fishing vessel Illusion went down in the Bering Sea. But the rescue, like so many others, displayed the elements inherent in all Coast Guardsmen willing to put their lives on the line so others may live, and represented the teamwork necessary to accomplish the mission of saving lives at sea. “The vessel sank with four people on board and my suit malfunctioned during the operation allowing my suit to flood with water and causing me to become severely hypothermic, but fortunately were able to get all four of them and myself out of the sea,” said Milam. The complete account of the heroic rescue can be found on line at www.piersystem.com.
According to Milam the success of last week’s Alaska Ranger rescue in the Bering Sea where 43 of the 47 crew members were saved was due to a combined Coast Guard effort, “We train every day of the week back in Kodiak, the entire helicopter air crew, we practice and perform rescue techniques on a daily and nightly basis and they are some of the best trained air crews in the world and that is why they were able to successfully rescue that many crew members. The rescue swimmer program is great training facility but without helicopter crew there’s no way those lives would have been saved,” Milam told the Dispatch.
Last week while visiting his wife Deb, Branch manager for First American Title in Kenai, who commutes between Soldotna and Kodiak, Milam demonstrated his flight rescue swim suit gear by having Jason Carroll, First National Bank of Alaska, try on his flight suit. “To graduate from swimmer rescue school, you have to be able to get into all 40 pounds of this gear in less than 3 minutes unassisted,” explained Milam taking over 10 minutes to get “Jason the Jester” into the full suit. Milam became interested in becoming a rescue swimmer back in 1985 when he himself was rescued when surfing with a buddy in a boat out of bounds that got in trouble and became a search and rescue operation for the Coast Guard, “About 20 minutes after we entered the water a Coast Guard Helicopter came over and I saw this guy sitting in the door of the chopper and I knew from that moment that was the job I wanted. I got out of the Navy in 1991 and entered the Coast Guard in ’92 and graduated from swimmers school in 1993,” said Milam.
During last week’s Kenai Rotary meeting a childhood friend of Milam’s, Dave Wells of Las Vegas, called Kenai Rotary Foundation Chairmen Jeff Belluomini to present Wil with a Rotary Paul Harris Fellowship in honor of his friends service, “I know of no better example of Service Above Self than the work that Wil does, and no better way to express my appreciation for his service than to make him a Paul Harris Fellow,” said Wells from Las Vegas. A Paul Harris Fellowship is a $1,000 contribution made to the Rotary Foundation. “In receiving recognition because of the specific case I was involved with I just have to say that really I was just doing the job I’ve been trained to do, but to me the real heroes are the ones that put themselves in life saving situations that aren’t trained to do it, but if such recognition raises money to bring Polio vaccine to children in poor countries and focuses a spotlight on the elements inherent in all Coast Guardsmen and the teamwork necessary to accomplish a mission then I can live with it,” said Milam, who was deployed this week to relieve the Coast Guard crew that responded to the Alaska Ranger incident.
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