From the Homefront: Coast Guard cities celebrated for embracing the community

Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 16 years. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Military Family Advisory Network.

Written by Shelley Kimball

Shops all over town celebrate the Coast Guard in Grand Haven. Photo courtesy of Shelley Kimball.

Shops all over town celebrate the Coast Guard in Grand Haven. Photo courtesy of Shelley Kimball.

Picture this: You are walking through a quaint small town and every shop window is decorated to celebrate the Coast Guard. As you step off the curb to cross the street, strangers thank you for your service. Repeatedly. And in the distance, home after home is decorated with ships, anchors, helicopters, and the Coast Guard’s ensign.

This was my family’s experience visiting Grand Haven, Michigan. The city is one of 21 that have been officially recognized as Coast Guard Cities.

These cities don’t just show their support for the Coast Guard this week, for Coast Guard Day, but all year long in a variety of ways. A Coast Guard City has to show a continued effort to go above and beyond in support.

“The city’s efforts illustrate a longstanding and enduring relationship with an emphasis on considerations the community has made for the members of the Coast Guard family,” said Capt. Sean Carroll, chief of the Office of External Outreach and Heritage.

However, Grand Haven is in a league all its own. Grand Haven, also known as Coast Guard City, U.S.A., was designated as such in 1998 with an act of Congress, signed by the president.

Each year, Grand Haven celebrates the service during the week surrounding Coast Guard Day with its Coast Guard Festival. The festival has tours of ships, concerts, golf tournaments, a carnival with rides, picnics, a parade, and a long list of special events.

Mike Smith, a retired Coast Guard commander, is the executive director of the festival and works all year long to plan and carry out the celebration. He also has nieces, nephews, and brothers-in-law who serve.

“For me to give back, it’s an honor. It validates my passion for the Coast Guard,” Smith said. “I’m passionate because it is personal.”

A hillside overlooking Grand Haven, Michigian, the nation’s first of 21 Coast Guard cities. Photo courtesy of Shelley Kimball.

A hillside overlooking Grand Haven, Michigian, the nation’s first of 21 Coast Guard cities. Photo courtesy of Shelley Kimball.

The history of the festival began in 1924 as a picnic for Coast Guard members. It has grown through the years to become a festival in 1937, and now to an event that attracts about 350,000 attendees.

Grand Haven is especially connected to the Coast Guard community because it was the homeport of one of the most tragic sea disasters in Coast Guard history. The sinking of the Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba in 1943 was not only a great loss to the Coast Guard, but also to the Grand Haven community, which was home to many who perished.

“Grand Haven lost 101 sons,” Smith said.

The town dedicated Escanaba Park in memory of their fallen. The centerpiece of every Coast Guard festival is a memorial service in the park to those who have lost their lives in service. Smith called it the heart of the festival.

Grand Haven, as the first Coast Guard city, paved the way for 20 more to follow. The act of Congress that applied the designation also allowed for other cities to be similarly named.

“We applaud and support the notion of Coast Guard cities because it means they do great things for the Coast Guard,” Smith said, “but our relationship is more tied to the soul.”

The importance of the Coast Guard Cities program is the recognition that cities across the country make Coast Guard families feel welcomed, even though they will be temporary residents. Repeated relocating can be stressful, so community support is vital to the wellbeing to those who serve and their families, Carroll said.

“Coast Guard Cities regularly engage local Coast guard personnel and their families to make them feel at home at their home away from home,” he said.

Entering the city limits of Grand Haven, Michigan, it is immediately clear that it is a Coast Guard city. Photo courtesy of Shelley Kimball.

Entering the city limits of Grand Haven, Michigan, it is immediately clear that it is a Coast Guard city. Photo courtesy of Shelley Kimball.

To receive the designation, the city itself must apply to the Coast Guard, showing continuous support over a significant period of time. A standing board, appointed by the commandant of the Coast Guard, then reviews the applications. The commandant makes the final determination regarding whether a city will receive the designation. Appropriate congressional committees are notified of the intent, and if there is no dissent after 30 days, the city is proclaimed a Coast Guard city. Cities then apply for recertification every five years.

San Diego, the most recent city to receive the designation, was recognized in February. It, too, has a strong history of Coast Guard support – the first air station was commissioned there in 1937. Not only that, the city’s chamber of commerce partnered with the Coast Guard to the first Maritime Emergency Restoration Plan, should the Port of Sand Diego experience some kind of disaster. Throughout the year, San Diego shows its dedication to the Coast Guard community, Carroll said.

“The people of San Diego regularly demonstrate their support of and commitment to the U.S. Coast Guard through their friendliness and hospitality; the multitude of special events throughout the year highlighting the Coast Guard; and the numerous services, including discounts from local businesses, for Coast Guard members and their families to honor their contributions to the nation,” he said.

Members from the San Diego Padres’ Pad Squad unveil the official logo for Coast Guard City San Diego during a ceremony to officially designate San Diego as a Coast Guard City at Coast Guard Sector San Diego on February 23, 2017. The designation is predicated on San Diego's ability to erect monuments to the Coast Guard, organize civic celebrations and offer special recognition and support U.S. Coast Guard morale, welfare and recreational initiatives. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Fireman Taylor Bacon.

Members from the San Diego Padres’ Pad Squad unveil the official logo for Coast Guard City San Diego during a ceremony to officially designate San Diego as a Coast Guard City at Coast Guard Sector San Diego on February 23, 2017. The designation is predicated on San Diego’s ability to erect monuments to the Coast Guard, organize civic celebrations and offer special recognition and support U.S. Coast Guard morale, welfare and recreational initiatives. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Fireman Taylor Bacon.

While Coast Guard families live all across the country, some cities make a concerted effort for us to feel like we are home, and the Coast Guard cities program celebrates that.

“The U.S. Coast Guard takes great pride in the service our men and women give to the American public,” Carroll said. “Many cities and communities provide exemplary support to our Coast Guard men and women living and working there.  It is the intent of this program to recognize those cities and communities.”

Smith echoes the encouragement to other cities to show their support in ways large and small, inviting the Coast Guard families to become part of the fabric of the community.

“You have Coast Guard neighbors. Embrace them and make them feel special in your part of the world,” he said.

What are your favorite Coast Guard cities? Share your thoughts below!

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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