Honor, Respect, Devotion to Duty: Lt. j.g. Joann Elizalde

Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul Dragin

Cmdr. Ryan Manning, commanding officer of Marine Safety Unit Chicago, presented the Coast Guard Achievement Medal to Ens. Joann Elizalde.  Elizalde recently reported to MSU Chicago from Sector Lake Michigan.  Pictured left to right: Elizalde, Manning, and Lt. Cmdr. Don Davis.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Cmdr. Sean Brady

Cmdr. Ryan Manning, commanding officer of Marine Safety Unit Chicago, presented the Coast Guard Achievement Medal to Ens. Joann Elizalde. Elizalde recently reported to MSU Chicago from Sector Lake Michigan. Pictured left to right: Elizalde, Manning, and Lt. Cmdr. Don Davis. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Cmdr. Sean Brady

During October of last year, with clear skies above and a slight headwind, Lt.j.g. Joann Elizalde, a reservist at Marine Safety Unit Chicago and a forester in her civilian career, made her way through dense forest in eastern Wisconsin, observing the trees as part of her daily work.

As an urban forester working for a paper mill in the region, Elizalde is tasked with marking trees for removal, while also ensuring the sustainability of the forests by avoiding the overuse of natural resources.

Spending a large portion of her working hours alone in the woods, Elizalde hardly expected her Coast Guard training to come in handy amid the solitude of the forest.

Piercing the usual sounds of crunching twigs beneath her feet and the rustling of leaves overhead came the voice of what appeared to be a man yelling for help.

“I was alone in the middle of the forest,” said Elizalde. “The last thing I expected to hear was another human voice, much less one in distress.”

Shrugging off her initial skepticism, she tried to make out the direction of the voice and began walking in that direction.

Little did she know, the voice she was trying to locate belonged to a 67-year-old man named John Lindner. His canoe had overturned in Thunder Lake, adjacent to the forest where Elizalde was working. At that point, he had already been in the frigid water for about 45 minutes, trying desperately to reach the shore.+

Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Joann Elizalde in her element. Photo courtesy of Joann Elizalde.

Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Joann Elizalde in her element. Photo courtesy of Joann Elizalde.

Realizing that his situation was growing more perilous by the minute and seemingly out of options, Lindner began calling for help as a last resort. Being in such a remote location, especially at that time of the year in Wisconsin when the summer boating season had ended weeks earlier, he knew the chances were slim that anyone would hear him.

“A dark feeling had come over me: I wasn’t going to make it back to shore,” Lindner said.

Meanwhile, Elizalde kept tracking the voice, bringing her to the edge of the forest where the ground became a porous mix of bog and swamp. She walked as far as she could before the swamp made going any further impossible without entering the water herself.

Realizing by now that Lindner was in the water and with the wind picking up and the temperature in the low 50s, she knew that time was of the essence.

Elizalde’s previous lifesaving training in the Coast Guard taught her that in these weather conditions, especially factoring in the temperature of the water, hypothermia would certainly be setting in and its effects on Lindner would grow exponentially with each passing minute.

Without making any visual contact and with just a voice to go on, Elizalde had 911 on the phone, directing them to her location. She continued shouting to Lindner, trying to encourage him. Recognizing the exhaustion in his voice, she kept communicating to him, to reassure both him and herself that help was on the way.

His responses to her questions grew fainter and fainter, until they stopped completely.

“The desperate feeling I had was only intensified by not being able to see or comprehend what was happening to him,” Elizalde explained.

As emergency units were approaching, their sirens caught the attention of a boater in the area who swiftly located Lindner, pulling him from the frigid water. The rescue boat arrived shortly after and transferred Lindner safely to shore.

Hypothermic with a core temperature several degrees below normal, the medics estimated that had Lindner stayed in the water, he only had another 10 minutes to spare before succumbing.

Although delirious and barely conscious at the time, Lindner distinctly remembered a woman’s voice calling out to him, uttering words of encouragement — “hang on,” “help is on the way,” “don’t give up” — as he was quickly losing all sense of coherence.

After recovering in the hospital, a lingering question remained on Lindner’s mind: who was that woman whose voice kept calling out to him when all hope seemed lost?

A determined Lindner managed to track her down.

“I wanted the chance to personally thank her for helping to save my life,” he said.

Elizalde credits her early years in the Coast Guard — specifically her work as a watchstander at a small boat station in Alaska — for preparing her to assist in the best way possible, given the circumstances.

“Thankfully, all of that training from a decade earlier came back to me in a critical moment,” said Elizalde.

She humbly and simply summed up her actions this way, “I just feel blessed to have been able to help such a nice man.”

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Amy Cocanour, commanding officer, Sector Lake Michigan, presents a coin to Ens. Joann Elizalde. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Amy Cocanour, commanding officer, Sector Lake Michigan, presents a coin to Ens. Joann Elizalde. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

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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