By Coast Guard Commander Carmen S. DeGeorge

September 11, 2001, was a turning point for the country, and it clearly charted a new course for me, my career and my family.

It conjures back memories to my days aboard a New England-based, 270-foot Coast Guard cutter after recently returning from a 60-day patrol.

Within 24 hours of the first tower strike, we found ourselves spooling up to get back underway, with New York as our destination. I remember the uncertainty, the confusion and emotion as crew members left families and loved ones, having only recently reunited with them from our previous patrol.

I had recently started dating my now-wife, who I had just convinced that 60-day deployments were “as bad as it gets for the Coast Guard.” I ate those words as we took in mooring lines and backed away from the pier with an unknown situation ahead of us. Despite all of our desires to be with family in this time of despair, our underlying Coast Guard ethos inspired an overwhelming sense of duty and urgency to reach New York. I still remember that feeling to this day.

Upon our approach to the Port of New York, I vividly recall the rising smoke and dust in the distance. As we made our turn towards the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the severity of the situation was clear to everyone on board. For the next 30-plus days, we worked as part of Operation Guarding Liberty—a huge task force of federal, state and local responders—in an effort to project a reassuring presence to the people of New York and the United States.

In the wake of tragedy, the Coast Guard entered a new era, with broad organizational and mission-focused changes on the horizon.

In the aftermath of 9/11 and the ramp-up to military operations in Iraq, I again found myself back-peddling to my now-wife as I described how my transfer orders to a patrol boat in Highlands, New Jersey, actually meant that I was heading to Iraq. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the unit had been forward-deployed, along with three other patrol boats, to support coalition forces in the northern Persian Gulf.

By the summer of 2003, I found myself living in Bahrain without my wife, patrolling the Iraq-Iran maritime border on a Coast Guard cutter. We also boarded vessels bound to and from Iraqi ports, deterred piracy and secured critical Iraqi infrastructure offshore. In 2004, we responded to one of our greatest threats—a deadly, water-borne suicide attack against the USS Firebolt, a U.S. Navy patrol boat. Two sailors and a Coast Guardsman were killed in the blast. This, like 9/11, is etched in my memory forever.

Service can teach us all kinds of lessons and two have been an important part of my Coast Guard career. The first is that change is the only constant, so take it all in stride. Second, military service is challenging, but opportunities are bountiful.

Lastly—and perhaps most importantly—I need to be careful about the promises I make to my wife!