Honor, Respect, Devotion to Duty: LT Shannon Scaff

Story by Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehmann

“It felt like I was sitting in the doorway just like when I was a rescue swimmer. I just wanted to get into the water and do the thing.”

As the seconds count down, his fingers tighten on the lip of the pool. His eyes, locked on the wall at the opposite end of the lane. It’s not a race. Not even close. The clock makes it official. 2:28 p.m. He kicks off and is away to the cheers of onlookers, fans and family.

On Feb. 28, 2012, four Coast Guard members lost their lives in a helicopter crash that was felt by every one of the service’s approximate 42,000 men and women.

A memorial ceremony held at their assigned unit of Aviation Training Center Mobile, Alabama, saw Lt. j.g. Thomas Cameron, Chief Petty Officer Fernando Jorge, Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Knight, and Lt. Cmdr. Dale Taylor mourned and honored by their command as well as the commandant of the Coast Guard. Many tears were shed as shipmates shared their stories of each man’s courage and friendship.

Lt. Shannon Scaff, an instructor with the Coast Guard’s Maritime Law Enforcement Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, and long time friend of Taylor, decided to invest his grief into something positive: a test of his mind, body and will.

Lt. Shannon Scaff, an instructor at the Coast Guard Maritime Law Enforcement Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, mentally prepares himself for a long distance swim in dedicated to a fallen Coast Guard aircrew, Feb. 27, 2015. Scaff undertook the challenge of swimming in a local Charleston pool for 24 hours to bring awareness and support to the families of fallen military members. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehmann.

Lt. Shannon Scaff, an instructor at the Coast Guard Maritime Law Enforcement Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, mentally prepares himself for a long distance swim in dedicated to a fallen Coast Guard aircrew, Feb. 27, 2015. Scaff undertook the challenge of swimming in a local Charleston pool for 24 hours to bring awareness and support to the families of fallen military members. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehmann.

“I was just trying to think of a way to kind of work through my grieving process,” said Scaff. “I came up with the idea of pushing myself to my limits in the pool and from there it built into what it is today.”

He decided to swim. For 24 hours. Straight.

“I’ve never done a 24-hour swim. Probably just got this one in me,” said Scaff. “I started training for this in August of last year and since August I’ve swam two 12-hour swims and one 14-hour swim. I’ve had a number of long swims, but nothing ever like 24 hours.”

While Scaff draws from his stint as a rescue swimmer, long-distance swimming in a pool isn’t where his experience lies. Put him in tumultuous seas with the added stress of transporting an unresponsive rescue to safety and you’ll start to get the picture. To help him prepare, Scaff enlisted the advice and mentorship of Charleston City Counsel member and veteran marathon swimmer Kathleen Wilson, a diminutive woman of undeniable mettle.

“I could see it from the first time I met him, I saw a focus. I could see it in his eyes. I could sense it,” said Wilson. “There’s nothing in the pool that’s going to harm him. There are things like that that are removed from the table. This is where focus comes into play. It’s all about accepting that it’s 24 hours, there’s no way to shorten it, so you might as well accept it.”

“[Kathleen] told me this is even tougher in some ways than those open-water swims, because of the monotonous nature where you’re basically staring at the bottom of the pool,” said Scaff. “It’s a big head game. If I keep my mind in the game, things are going to be okay.”

Lt. Shannon Scaff, an instructor at the Coast Guard Maritime Law Enforcement Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, takes a lap during a long distance swim he dedicated to a fallen Coast Guard aircrew, Feb. 27, 2015. Scaff undertook the challenge of swimming in a local Charleston pool for 24 hours to bring awareness and support to the families of fallen military members. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehmann.

Lt. Shannon Scaff, an instructor at the Coast Guard Maritime Law Enforcement Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, takes a lap during a long distance swim he dedicated to a fallen Coast Guard aircrew, Feb. 27, 2015. Scaff undertook the challenge of swimming in a local Charleston pool for 24 hours to bring awareness and support to the families of fallen military members. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehmann.

As the minutes roll into hours and the mileage begins to rack up on his arms and legs, Scaff’s deliberately plodding pace changes only in the minutia. Like a boxer between rounds, he occasionally pauses and allows his support crew comprised primarily of his girlfriend, brother and Wilson to give him a sip of water, pop a protein ball in his mouth or to change up his swimming accessories. These pauses last less than a minute and then it’s back in the ring for a few more rounds. He knows he has a long way yet to go, but he knows why he’s here.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t miss Dale,” said Scaff. “There have been times during these swims that that’s all that’s enabled me to push through. I think about him everyday and I have an opportunity during these swims to think about him even more. That’s been critical to my finish.”

Sunset. Sunrise. Only six hours left. Scaff’s pace is noticeably slower. His short breaks become more and more frequent. Concern for a boyfriend, father and hero line the faces of his supporters. With five hours left he asks that all spectators move away from the poster pictures of the fallen aircrew that were arranged poolside.

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehmann.

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehmann.

“I really just wanted that area cleared so I had a view of them,” said Scaff. “I had peaks and valleys in my energy throughout the swim. I’d approach that end of the pool and my focus would be on them. It’s going to sound hokey, but it was like they were as bright as the sun. It was hard to look at them. It was emotional, but I needed that to keep me going.”

Four hours left. The roar of an engine overhead drowns out the anxious whispers of the crowd. It’s an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew from Coast Guard Air Station Savannah showing their support.

“In those moments you’re so broken down from the rollercoaster ride of that length of time that anything, any sound can have a profound effect on you,” said Scaff. “To me, the 65 sound is one that every time I hear it I think of Dale in those moments. Hearing that, seeing his face, being in that moment was so powerful that it gave me a charge that gave me the energy to get it done. They seemed to come at the exact times I needed them to. It was huge for me.”

Scaff’s arms dig in as he pulls the other side of the pool closer. He’s operating on sheer will, but still moving forward. The stress of the crowd is palpable. He’s going to need that energy to finish. If he finishes. Their doubts are never spoken aloud, but they linger in pained expressions around the pool. He could stop right now. He doesn’t need to do all 24. Twenty hours is fine. More than most could do. Who could fault him?

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehmann.

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehmann.

“It was mentally toxic. Twenty-four hours. Ninty-nine percent of it was looking at tiles flying by underneath me,” said Scaff. “I just kept thinking, ‘Okay, this, plus a few hours more.’”

With two hours left, each lap accomplished is met with echoing applause from the growing throng. Optimism cuts the thick facade of anxiety hovering over the water. Worry lines give way to cautious smiles. He could actually do it.

“Self doubt can lead you down the path of self fulfilling prophecy,” said Scaff. “The reality is that mind over matter only gets you so far. You’re body’s going to start shutting down. What if my shoulder gives out? What if I get a cramp in my arms, or hamstrings? What if that happens and I have 10 hours to go? Those possibilities are there, but you press on. You have to channel that.”

At 2:28 p.m., on Feb. 28, 2015, Scaff is assisted from the pool. The time spent in a weightlessness environment on top of depleted muscles have left him weak, but not broken. After a short recovery period where family members dry him and work to raise a 96-degree body temperature, Scaff haltingly rises to his feet and under his own power walks around the pool to greet his supporters. He gives out hugs, handshakes, poses for pictures, but doesn’t stop moving until he makes it back to his mini base camp in the corner of the community pool. He lies down on his cot and closes his eyes as his new fans file out into the parking lot, inspired by what many had thought an insurmountable feat.

“I got the feeling that people thought it was unattainable,” said Scaff. “They just want to say and do what’s right. They’re like ‘you got this, you can do this,’ but there were doubts. You can sense the doubt. I believed it was possible. I believed it was a great way to memorialize these guys. I felt like if it was going to happen in Charleston, if the Coast Guard was going to be represented, this is going to be a great way to do it.”

Still clearing the scent of chlorine from his nostrils, still resting sore muscles, Scaff gains satisfaction having completed the job he set out to do: memorialize four worthy heroes and inspire others by achieving a goal so towering as be personally defining.

“This has been an incredible, personal journey for me,” said Scaff. “This was more than saying ‘support the troops.’ It’s not just something we say when a Navy Seal movie drops on Memorial Day weekend. It’s something we live everyday.”

Don’t quit. It has been nine years since Scaff sat in the door of a helicopter, ready to save another life. The details of cases, the training, they all fade over time. But if there’s one thing he’s passed on to those present at a crowded Charleston pool in late February it’s those two, simple, but powerful words. Don’t quit.

Madison Scaff hugs her father, Lt. Shannon Scaff, after he finished his goal of swimming 24 hours in a pool to memorialize the fallen aircrew of Coast Guard helicopter 6535 in Charleston, South Carolina, Feb. 28, 2015. Scaff trained for over a year to help prepare him for this test of endurance and will. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehmann.

Madison Scaff hugs her father, Lt. Shannon Scaff, after he finished his goal of swimming 24 hours in a pool to memorialize the fallen aircrew of Coast Guard helicopter 6535 in Charleston, South Carolina, Feb. 28, 2015. Scaff trained for over a year to help prepare him for this test of endurance and will. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehmann.

Do you know someone who embodies the Coast Guard Core Values of Honor, Respect, Devotion to Duty? Please submit your nominations using the “Submit Ideas” link on the right.

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