Cmdr. Ward Sandlin took over as commanding officer of Air Station Sitka on Wednesday. The top job changes over every two years.
Sandlin replaces Cmdr. Doug Cameron, who will serve as Chief of Incident Management for a region stretching from New Jersey to North Carolina.
Cameron’s time at the 120-person station was marked by a tragedy, but also by a strengthening of ties with the larger community.
They gathered in the cavernous hangar at Air Station Sitka, in front of a floor-to-ceiling American flag: Coast Guard officers in their formal uniforms, family members holding flowers, members of the community. This was a celebration of the change of command – a military ceremony, full of pomp and circumstance, but also reflection.
“Like most that have served here, I have no doubt that when my Coast Guard career ends, this will be the tour that I remember the most,” said Cmdr. Doug Cameron, who took charge of Air Station Sitka in late June 2010.
One week after Cameron took command, a helicopter crashed off the coast of Washington state, claiming the lives of three people from Air Station Sitka.
“Together as a community and as an Air Station, somehow we managed to get through the nightmare of losing three of our own,” he said. “I know the day will never come that I don’t think of Sean, Brett and Adam, and I know I’m not alone. I will miss each and every one of you. I take comfort in the knowledge that I am better for having known you. And I know that, together, we have made a difference.”
As attendees mingled after the ceremony, Cameron said the events of July 2010 set the tone for his tour in Sitka.
“The Coast Guard’s always a close knit group of people, so I think we probably would have been close anyway, but it really brought us closer to the town,” he said. “I had just arrived here. I didn’t know anybody in town that well, and they absolutely came to our rescue and helped us with everything at every turn. It was almost overwhelming to experience something like that. I immediately felt a really close, tight-knit bond with the town, and it was because of that that I did.”
There was reflection at the ceremony but also warm words of congratulations. City officials and members of the public attended the ceremony, which included a reception afterward, and cupcakes designed to look like little helicopters. Cameron could barely take five steps before people approached him with well-wishes.
He says Sitka is a coveted duty station among Coast Guard aviators.
“We make sure we get the best pilots here. We make sure every pilot that comes here is on at least their second tour,” he said. “It’s like stepping up to the big leagues when you come here. Everybody is excited to be here and to be part of that, and it kind of sets the tone of the unit.”
It’s a tone not lost on the new commanding officer.
“I keep telling people that I feel like I’ve won the lottery,” Sandlin said. “This is, within the community that I’m in, the H-60 community, I now have the dream job. I couldn’t be happier.”
Sandlin has served in Alaska before. He did a tour of duty at Air Station Kodiak, and also lived in Kodiak when he was a boy and his dad was in the Coast Guard. He’s been a pilot, a pilot instructor, and has worked at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
He comes to Sitka directly from Air Station Clearwater, Fla., where he was operations officer. This is his first command.
“The men and women at the Air Station here in Sitka are unparalleled,” he said. “They’re absolutely some of the best we have, and I’m looking forward to working with them. I’m so excited to be working with the people in town. I’ve heard nothing but great things about the support we get from the town of Sitka. It’s a relationship between the Air Station and the town that really is unmatched anywhere else within the Coast Guard. So I’m looking forward to that.”
Coast Guard Air Stations change commanders every two years or so. Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo is commander of the Coast Guard in Alaska. He says the leadership rotates because there are a lot of officers and not a lot of command jobs.
“If these were to be four or five or six year tours, people would not have the opportunity to experience what command is all about,” Ostebo said. “That’s a big part of being a military officer. I will add that the other services change even faster than the Coast Guard.”
As for Cameron, he’s off to Virginia, and is due to become captain soon. He’ll serve as chief of incident management for a region stretching from New Jersey to North Carolina. He said he’s coming to terms with his new assignment behind a desk instead of in the cockpit.
“I love to fly,” he said. “I love to fly Coast Guard helicopters and to do search and rescue, and so my next job is a promotion and it’s a great job, and I’m very excited about going there. But who would want to leave this?”
Cameron said he’ll be in town for a few more weeks, to let his kids finish the school year. Sandlin says his wife, daughter and son arrived earlier this week, and that he’s looking forward to transitioning into Sitka life. He adds that you might have seen him around town already breaking in his new pair of Xtratuffs.