The Coast Guardsman who was the calm voice amid a firestorm

by Vern Evans

Last year, as high winds swept across the Pacific Ocean and battered Maui, Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Casper was inspecting the damage a fallen tree had done to the small station on Māʻalaea Bay, Hawaii where he and his fellow Coast Guardsmen worked. Then he got the call: a devastating wildfire, buffeted by the heavy winds, was spreading and residents of the nearby town of Lahaina were fleeing to the harbor, where they found themselves trapped between the blaze and the open water.

For four days, beginning on Aug. 8, Casper directed his crew of Coast Guardsmen in their lone 45-foot boat as they assisted in the rescue of 40 people. For his actions, he has been named Military Times’ 2024 Coast Guardsman of the Year.

Though Casper and his station mates knew the area well, this was different from the rescue missions they’d run in the past. Roads were cut off and residents were forced toward the harbor. Those same winds that fueled the fire, choked the air with smoke and cut down visibility.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Teddy Kirkbride had served at the station for nearly six years. He was on duty that first day with Casper.

From the moment the Casper had arrived in January 2022, he began raising the standards, Kirkbride said. He pushed those at the station to exceed the standards and emphasized attention to detail, never missing an opportunity to improve performance through rigorous training.

One day Kirkbride had shown up to work in a dirty uniform, paint stains on his pants. Instead of chewing him out, Casper pulled the petty officer aside, explaining that if each day he made a small improvement, such as ensuring his uniform was ready for duty, he’d see tremendous changes over time.

A fellow crewmate on duty that day echoed Kirkbride’s comment.

“We always know if he can jump on the boat with us or into the training with us, you know you’re always going to get the highest level of training, that we’re always going to learn something,” Petty Officer 3rd Class Kalei Guth said.

Yet, despite the training, they were nervous, heading into a smoke-filled harbor, not knowing what to expect. Incoming reports said as many as 100 people might be in the water.

Then Kirkbride heard Casper on a call with higher command, telling them they needed a safety waiver due to the conditions, but that his team was ready.

“We’ve got the best crew members at Maui, the best engineer and two of the best coxswains standing by,” Casper said.

“Just hearing him say that, regardless of whether we actually were the best, saying that to the commander at the command center, it helped me — helped my confidence going out there and doing the hard thing,” Kirkbride said.

The crew made it to the harbor, weaving through unmoored boats, dead bodies and smoke so thick they had to wait for breaks to see through.

Over the next six hours, the crew would hear from Casper, checking in on them, advising them and running interference from the cascade of radio traffic flooding the airwaves.

They hauled people off stranded boats, they threw lines to a jetty wall that survivors used to pull themselves to the boat, they picked up people who swam out to meet them to escape the smoke and flames.

Casper recalled the rest of the station’s personnel. A Coast Guard station works much like a fire station, alternating crews to work multiple days on and off. The crew out on the first rescue mission had been at the end of its two-day cycle.

At the same time, Casper called for further assistance, from the Coast Guard helicopter crews, Navy resources and others. But with the high winds and smoke nobody could get to them. It was this lone 45-foot response boat and its Maui crew on the water.

Casper reached out to the civilian charter boats for help. Four responded and made it to the station. He put together a plan where the response boat would run six-hour shifts, alternating the crews that traveled into the harbor. The charter boats would serve as drop-off points for the response boat to unload passengers.

By the time the response boat had returned from its first trip, it had a dozen survivors on board. The crew changed out at the station and headed back to the harbor, back to where they were needed most.

Through the haze, the new crew saw what looked like flashlights. But they couldn’t pull the boat to the light, they were too close to the reef. So, they retrieved a small dingy and two surfboards. The crew piloted the dingy into the shallow water and then two crewmembers took the surfboards to the shore to pick up two children, a 5- and 8-year-old girl.

“I’ve never been more proud to be part of a group of men and women in my life,” Casper said. “It’s really an honor to be a part of that.”

By sunrise the next day, the station crew had run nonstop shifts to the harbor and saved 17 people.

They were far from done. The teams continued for the next three days nonstop. They would assist with rescuing 40 people during the four-day response.

Casper was the calm voice amid the storm, connecting the crew with those in need throughout those harrowing days.

All told, the fires claimed an estimated 100 lives and caused nearly $6 billion in damage, devastating Maui.

Since then, Casper was meritoriously promoted to chief petty officer and members of the station have been recommended for awards for their service.

“It’s hard to be recognized when you’re doing your job … when the community you live in is still grieving and mourning 100 lives lost here, that’s challenging. People here have lost everything and lost family members, friends,” Casper said.

For the past 23 years, Service Members of the Year awards have honored one outstanding military (active duty, Guard or Reserve) member from each branch of service. They are selected based on exemplary military service that goes beyond the call of duty. The honorees and their families are being flown to Washington, D.C., for a visit to the nation’s capital and a special awards ceremony attended by congressional, military and community leaders. The awards ceremony will take place on April 24, 2024. To watch the livestream of the event, register here.

See all of Military Times’ 2024 Service Members of the Year honorees.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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