Commandant’s Reading List Review – Unbroken

At the start of the year, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft shared his reading list on All Hands. As part of a continued discussion on leadership, the Commandant has invited members from across the fleet to review the selections and share insights on how they are applying what they’ve read to mission execution. This is the second blog in the series and was authored by Lt Cmdr. Josi Heron, Sector San Diego Reserve Response Department Head and winner of the 2016 CAPT John G.Witherspoon-Reserve Award.

Written by Lt. Cmdr. Josi Heron

1st Lt Louis Zamperini in April 1943.

1st Lt Louis Zamperini in April 1943.

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, is an exemplary book about World War II which will immediately captivate the interest of any reader, history buff or not. This great generation of heroes is now passing on, and with them passes the wealth of knowledge and first-hand experience that comes only from true sacrifice. Unbroken is an incredible tale expertly told of a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, who absolutely would not be beaten, despite unthinkable hardships and devastating situations. This is a true story of survival against all odds by Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner, who survived a grueling 47 days at sea only to become a prisoner of war for more than two years during WWII. This story so clearly illustrates the struggles of our countryman in the fight for our freedoms and provides lessons to be gleaned and applied today.

For the past three years, I have served with 40 of the best reservists in the Coast Guard. I am convinced that collectively the Coast Guard has the highest caliber personnel, and the reserves bring an element of maturity and parallel experience that is unique to our community. The foundation of who I am is built on the belief that it is the people who you encounter in life that are the true reason for being. This is no more true than when proven by Zamperini while he endured his struggles, not only because he was a ridiculously tough and determined soul to begin with, but also because he relied upon his shipmates to get him through the toughest times. It was the shared misery and hope that bound Zamperini together with other POWs. When men and women of worth are truly tested to the very fabric of their being, amazing obstacles can be overcome, and a level of fortitude and kinship found like no other time.

Nauru Island under attack by Liberator bombers of the Seventh Air Force. Department of the Army, 1955.

Nauru Island under attack by Liberator bombers of the Seventh Air Force. Department of the Army, 1955.

This book is truly impactful, and upon reflection it seems hard to draw parallels while everything we do pales so far in comparison with this depth of history. Yet, there are so many lessons to be taken away. Determination. Fortitude. Faith. The strongest of which is connection, which I translate to mean to invest in your people. When I arrived in San Diego, I was a fish out of water finding myself with a prevention background and suddenly leading a response world. What I lacked in experience, I made up for in relationship building. By overcoming fears of inadequacy and realizing the huge amount of inherent potential in the professionals I was charged with, I was able to steer our team towards a mission which they readily excelled at. We grew together buoyed by the trust I placed in them, and their eagerness to perform. I asked the “how” and “why not” questions of the command, of my peers, of other commands, until we transitioned from a mind-numbing training tailspin to fully operational, engaged and certified department of 40 members.

Our time is different from Zamperini’s. We are so very fortunate, though we are wise not to forget what made this country as strong as we are today. I lead my team to be ready, to be strong and prepared, but overall to be compassionate kin aware of their personal impact on the mission and the exponential potential of working as a tight team.

This true tale of Zamperini’s survival has lasting impact as it shows the reader a level of personal angst during WWII that is not often seen and is not dulled with time. Unbroken has my highest recommendation. I encourage every Coast Guardsman to read it and to take stock of the bonds that hold us together and the countless freedoms that were won through the sacrifices of great men like Louis Zamperini.

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