ORANGE, Va. — When John Wright says a wrong turn in life led to his enlisting in the United States Coast Guard, he's not using a euphemism. He doesn't mean covering up an unfavorable past, running away from something or with no where else to go, Wright's service was the continuation of a legacy centuries in the making. He saw himself destined for the Navy, but a literal wrong turn long ago led to Wright changing the world, or at least the world as it applies to maritime safety.
Wright, a chemistry teacher at Orange County High School and current USCG reservist, comes from a long line of American military service, he said dating back to the 1600s. Initially, Wright imagined he would join the Navy as his father had done, but something steered him in another direction.
"I was raised in a family with a long line of military service, raised in the 'you need to serve this country' [tradition]" said Wright. "[The Coast Guard] was a fluke of nature. I took a wrong turn one day, saw a Coast Guard Office and began to wonder what they do... The different types of missions were so numerous and seemed so exciting."
A military legacy instills a certain expectation of what service might be like. Wright first envisioned a life in the cavalry, but the absence of that drew him to the Navy. When he finally got to the Coast Guard he found the reality differed slightly than the reputation.
"I pictured the lifeboat crashing through the waves going on a rescue," he said. "Not so much."
Wright was honorably discharged after a few years of active duty service as a gunner's mate, a marine safety officer and small arms instructor. After Sept. 11, 2001, though, Wright reenlisted as part of a push to recruit previously discharged active duty servicemen into the reserves. Since then he's done the standard one weekend a month, two weeks a year active duty that's included in the Coast Guard ads. His rank is currently Petty Officer First Class, serving as a Port State Control Officer.
Wright talks about the Coast Guard as the gatekeepers of no less than a huge portion of the American and international economy. He uses the word "commerce" to describe both the cargo aboard the ships and their activities in the ports, as if the business conducted in the ports, supervised largely by the Coast Guard, is not isolated harbor to harbor, but is essential to the flow of the entire global market. When Wright goes on to describe the Coast Guard's role in monitoring and inspecting the ships that come into U.S. ports, it's clear his branch does everything on the large scale. He measures the books of regulations he's learned for inspecting vessels by the foot that and compares the size of the ships and him in them to a toy soldier inspecting a car's engine.
Wright's imprint on international maritime industry started with "demonstrative wastage," what the layman will recognize as rust, or painted rust. A little more than a month ago, while Wright was serving his weekend of active duty, he inspected a foreign ship in the port of Hampton Roads. While examining the ship's emergency generator, Wright found rust on the emergency shutoff of the generator and performed a number of tests to see if the emergency power system was in working order.
"A ship has three engines: the main engine for normal propulsion, the auxiliary engine, mostly for in-port needs, like fresh water, and the emergency generator, which is used when you're up a creek without a paddle," said Wright. "The main purpose of the emergency shutoff is in the case of a fire, to contain the fuel. If you've got a fire and you can't get the fuel contained, you have a problem."
The ship's emergency generator failed, then broke, then was repaired and continued to fail until it was detained by the Coast Guard. It was the rust that could have stranded a ship anywhere in the earth's waters.
Wright's testing of the emergency shutoff was not standard practice at the time, it was up to the discretion of the inspector to identify possible failures. Since the incident in April, the test has been adopted into the inspections for an international maritime classification society, effectively making life and work safer for the crews aboard these ships.
"A ship is an island unto itself; it's designed to be self-sufficient," said Wright. "People need to be able to get to their vessel, do their work and then get back safely to thief families. We're the government and we're here to help, but we're really here to help. I just feel honored to be part of this organization. It's an honor and privilege to serve."