Book Review: So Others May Live by Martha LaGuardia-Kotite

Topic & Content

Published in 2006, this book examines the development of the U.S. Coast Guard’s rescue swimmer program in the 1980s before chronicling several notable cases involving rescue swimmers throughout the 1990s and during the Coast Guard’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The book is organized as follows:

  1. So Others May Live
  2. If You’re Not Scared, You’re Not Living
  3. Believers
  4. First
  5. To Almost Die
  6. Storm of the Century
  7. The Falls
  8. Bow Mariner
  9. Hurricane Baby
  10. Obstacle Rich
  11. Point of No Return
  12. The Perfect Rig
  13. Game On, Gentlemen, Game On
  14. Saints Over New Orleans

Thesis

There isn’t much of a defined thesis to this book, but it provides an examination of the origins of the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmer program and a number of notable search-and-rescue cases. LaGuardia-Kotite’s motivation for writing this book was to tell the heroic stories of rescue swimmers she had met over her career in the Coast Guard.

Author’s Background

Martha LaGuardia-Kotite graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and served for 10 years on active duty before transitioning to the reserves. She retired as a Captain and now works as a motivational speaker and professional author.

Critical Observations

Positives

I previously read this book back when it was first published in 2006 and thought I’d give it another go.

When most people picture the U.S. Coast Guard, they immediately think of the helicopter rescue swimmers. The high profile heroics of the Aviation Survival Technicians (ASTs) jumping into the raging seas and dangling from a hoist make for great news stories, but despite the publicity, it was only in 1984 that Congress gave an official mandate to the Coast Guard to establish such a program (unofficial rescue swimmer programs existed in the Coast Guard prior to that time, but they never lasted very long). Thus, the Coast Guard rescue swimmer program is actually a very modern creation.

The first few chapters of the book provide the reader with a good overview of the beginnings of the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmer program. Initially, Coast Guard rescue swimmers went through the U.S. Navy’s rescue swimmer program at Pensacola, Florida. The duties of the rescue swimmers were folded into the (then) Aviation Survivalman (ASM) rating which was responsible for parachute rigging and the maintenance of survival equipment. (The rating was eventually renamed Aviation Survival Technician (AST) in 1999.) In addition to proving themselves in front of their Navy brethren, there was also a concerted effort to differentiate the Coast Guard rescue swimmers both from the Navy rescue swimmers and the Air Force Pararescuemen. The differences in each service notwithstanding, the reasons were also budgetary. Yes, there is a general overlap in their search-and-rescue capabilities, but the different requirements of the Air Force, Coast Guard, and Navy necessitate different training needs. Each program is a different length and is designed to cultivate different skills.

Beyond describing the development of the program itself, several notable rescue swimmers are profiled, such as the first five men to become Coast Guard rescue swimmers, and the first woman (Kelly Mogk Larson) to achieve that distinction. Others who were instrumental in developing the rescue swimmer program are also discussed and some aviators frequently appear throughout the book, such as Captain Bruce Jones.

After the first couple of chapters, the majority of the book moves on to become a compilation of memorable rescues involving rescue swimmers. Each chapter chronicles a different search-and-rescue case describing the situation, the people involved, the rescue, and the aftermath. Cases include everything from saving a family from their boat in a hurricane to rescuing a suicidal veteran on Niagra Falls. Other notable cases involved a cave rescue where the helicopter crew flew the aircraft into the cave itself and the rescue of a crew off of a burning oil rig. The final chapter naturally covers the tremendous Coast Guard efforts during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Throughout the book, LaGuardia-Kotite’s writing is clear and gives the reader a good sense of the geography involved in some of these rescues. The book is detailed, but not to the point of inundating the reader with an excessive amount of nautical or technical jargon. This is an excellent book for any reader to get an introduction to the rescue swimmer profession in the U.S. Coast Guard. Naturally, the program has evolved and the techniques and equipment will undoubtedly change, but the basics are evident.

Negatives

Once the book gets beyond the development of the rescue swimmer program each chapter functions as its own separate short story about a notable rescue. This generally isn’t a big problem and it moves chronologically, but it can sometimes be a little jarring to go from chapter to chapter reading about wildly different search-and-rescue cases. There’s not a ton of continuity between any of them, save for some people mentioned in earlier chapters appearing later on.

While the book has a good amount of photos of trailblazing rescue swimmers and their jobs, there’s a complete lack of maps to help the reader understand where many of these rescues were taking place. Some of the cases involved the helicopters flying to the very limit of their range.

My final criticism of this book is that it’s now dated. It only covers the rescue swimmer program and some notable rescues throughout the 1990s and up to Hurricane Katrina. Even at that, it’s not a comprehensive survey of every search-and-rescue case involving rescue swimmers during that time. It doesn’t contain many statistics for those who are looking to do that type of research. Since the book contains no bibliography or citations, it’s clearly meant for the maritime adventure/popular history market. Anyone looking to do some in-depth research on the topic will need to find other sources.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

All in all, this book serves as a good introduction to the world of Coast Guard rescue swimmers for the layperson. The writing is clear and easy to follow. In many instances, the stories are harrowing and thrilling as they depict the heroics of a small number of people trying to save the lives of others. On the downside, the book is really just a series of short stories with little to link them together into an overarching picture of the profession. With no citations or bibliography, other sources will need to be consulted when doing more in-depth research.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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