Paying it forward

Each year, the President of the United States designates September 15 to October 15 as National Hispanic Heritage Month – a national celebration of the history, culture and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Continuing Compass’ recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month 2011, we bring you the story of Petty Officer 3rd Class Ahmed Suarez who became a U.S. citizen while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard and has gone on to excel in the very service that saved his life.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Ahmed Suarez receives the Letter of Commendation from Capt. Matthew Sisson for his work in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response. Photo courtesy of Petty Officer 3rd Class Ahmed Suarez.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Ahmed Suarez receives the Letter of Commendation from Capt. Matthew Sisson for his work in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response. Photo courtesy of Petty Officer 3rd Class Ahmed Suarez.

Ask any Coast Guard member why they joined the service and you will get a different answer from just about everyone.  Some join for the adventure, to see the world, the chance to save lives, be a part of something bigger than themselves or the opportunity to serve their country. But it is rare to find someone who joins the Coast Guard to repay the act of being rescued from almost certain disaster.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Ahmed Suarez was eight years old when his family of 14 was rescued by the Coast Guard. Their boat’s fuel system broke down and their family was left drifting throughout the night. By fortune or destiny, a fishing boat spotted their vessel and called the Coast Guard.

“I remember how big that 41-foot boat looked to me as a crewmember picked us up and transferred us onboard. After that we were taken to Coast Guard Station Islamorada,” recalls Suarez.

This one moment changed Suarez’ life forever and with a wish to pay it forward, Suarez enlisted in the Coast Guard at the age of 20.

“I joined the Coast Guard because I wanted to help people; to be able to do what the Coast Guard did for me,” said Suarez.

His first duty station was at the Fire and Safety Test Detachment in Mobile, Ala. Suarez’ desire to serve the very country that rescued him and his family came to fruition immediately as he found himself  assisting with the recovery efforts for both Hurricane Katrina and Deepwater Horizon.


Petty Officer 3rd Class Suarez is currently stationed on Coast Guard Cutter Shearwater, an 87-foot patrol boat homeported out of Portsmouth, Va. U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Chris Evanson.

“When Deepwater Horizon transpired,  I was directly involved with developing and testing new technologies to detect submerged oil, as well as deploying oil containment booms on the Coast Guard’s only landing craft to protect Alabama’s gulf shore beaches,” said Suarez.

After working along the gulf shores, Suarez received orders for Coast Guard Cutter Shearwater, an 87-foot patrol boat home ported in Portsmouth, Va. Because these boats are highly sought after and extremely competitive for junior enlisted members, Suarez took every opportunity given to him and met every challenge.  Despite his performance there was one thing holding him back from moving up in the ranks.

Suarez was still awaiting U.S. citizenship, which is necessary for non-U.S. citizens serving in the Coast Guard if they wish to make the Coast Guard a career. In order to advance past the rate of seaman or to re-enlist, servicemembers must become a naturalized U.S. citizen. Despite the extensive process it takes to become a citizen, Suarez knew without a shadow of a doubt it was something he desired.

“It is an incredibly long process,” said Suarez. “They lost my paperwork twice, but it was all worth it in the end to be able to take that oath.”

“Whenever I get new crew assignments, I tend to look up any information I can find,” said Master Chief Petty Officer William James, commanding officer of Shearwater. “So when I saw that then Seamen Ahmed Suarez had been an E-3 for five years, a red flag went up. But then I found out he has been waiting for his citizenship to go through since you can’t advance to the rate of petty officer until you are a U.S. citizen. That shows me complete dedication and love for the service; having a family at that pay grade is not easy.”

Suarez continues to excel as a crewmember aboard Shearwater where he performs critical missions in defense of the nation of which he is now a citizen. Every day he is aboard Shearwater is a day he honors the courage and sacrifice of countless Americans who have gone before him, and pays tribute to the rescuers who changed his life.

“I have been commanding officer for five different 87-foot patrol boats and Petty Officer Suarez stands out. He qualified in record time in each of his watch stations. It usually takes two months to qualify inport officer of the deck and Suarez was fully qualified in less than a month,” said James. “To get the full underway crewman and engineering officer of the watch it normally takes three months but he got qualified in a month and a half. He’s just one of the hardest working and driven people I have met in my 28 years of service.”

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