James Aiken ’22 is an Adult Degree Program student majoring in Business.
About a month into flight school, I’m sitting on the couch, watching the news before one of my flight lessons. It was something like six o’clock in the morning in Arizona, so it was nine-something in New York. I turned on the news to see one of the towers already burning, and as I’m sitting there watching it, I saw the second plane fly into the other building. So needless to say, my flight lesson that morning got cancelled.
They cancelled all of our lessons for the next—I want to say six weeks, before they allowed us to go back to the flight school again. I eventually went back and finished my private pilot’s license in December. But pilots were getting furloughed in the year after that—the airline industry took a pretty big hit. I decided then that I was going to join the military instead of trying to pursue a pilot career. I went to the Army, the Navy, and the Coast Guard, and decided on the Coast Guard.
The reason I did not consider the Air Force is because I wouldn’t have been able to be a pilot, which is what I really wanted to do. At the time, you had to have 20/20 vision, and they didn’t allow any Lasik surgery or anything. And the Air Force is all about flying planes, and I didn’t want any other kind of job if I wasn’t going to be flying.
The Coast Guard is all about driving boats, and I could drive the boat.
That’s what I wanted to do—that’s why I joined. I literally had the conversation with the recruiter in his office. He had a poster on his wall of some guys on a small inflatable boat with long guns. And I said, who are these guys—what’s their job? And he said, those are boatswain mates, and if you wanna drive one of those boats, you’re a coxswain.
So that was my plan when I first joined. As soon as I got to my unit, I asked my chief: what do I need to do to be the guy out driving the boat? And he said, well, first thing you need to do is pass this test that everybody else here cannot seem to pass. It’s called the rules of the road, which is the Coast Guard navigation test.
To drive the boats, you have to know all the different light configurations, the buoys, the sound signals—all of that. And it’s a written test. So I said, alright—and I took the book, studied it, and passed with a 98 on the first try. When the chief handed me the results, he was all excited, cause he had already had a bunch of guys under him fail the test multiple times. And I took it the first time and passed. But I was like, aw, I got one wrong? — I think I know which one that is.
You can think of a Coast Guard station as being a police station combined with a fire station, but on the water. Police go out, and they patrol, they look for crime—and the fire station, people call them when there’s an emergency. So they tend to hang out at the fire station and not really do anything unless they have a call. Especially on those three-day weekends, if we weren’t actively doing something, we’d just be watching movies or playing video games, hanging out at the station. But the most common thing I did on a daily basis was law enforcement, sprinkled with random search and rescue cases.
We responded once to a woman who put out a distress call. Her boat was sinking. We went out there, and it was the middle of the night…and the seas were angry that day, my friend. But I mean, it was a pretty good chop, there were some pretty good seas; it was probably eight- or ten-foot seas, I mean, we were rocking around. And we got to her sailboat, and she was sinking, there was no doubt about it. But she would not let us pull her off the boat unless we got her cat off first.
So we had to rescue the cat—which obviously was not happy, and didn’t want to be picked up. And it wasn’t an easy operation—it was pitch dark, the boats banging against each other, and her boat was sinking pretty fast. But we got the cat in a duffel bag and hauled it up, and saved the lady and the cat. The whole time we’re telling her, come on, just come with us, get in the boat, we’ll go back for the cat—but she wasn’t having it. She was like, cat first, or I’m going down with the boat.
I was in for eight years. But once you start getting up in rank in years of service, all those fun jobs—those are young people jobs. If I was still in the Coast Guard right now, I would be at a desk, not on a boat. But I also had to think about the kids. We didn’t want to keep moving the family around to different schools; we wanted them to have all four years of high school in the same place. And here we are, over 10 years later. I have a very successful business, and I’m about to graduate with my degree.
Getting my degree is really not going to affect me career-wise at this point—I just wanted to complete what I set out to do 20 years ago. And, of course, my GI benefits are going to expire in a couple years, so I figured I needed to use them before I lose them. I’ve already got an associates in Aeronautical Science from Embry-Riddle, and I can’t wait to finally have my bachelor’s from Oglethorpe. Just to say, alright, I did it.
Oglethorpe is a family affair for the Aikens. While James will graduate in 2022, his daughter Jamie will graduate in 2023 and his wife Debbie is a 2012 alumna.