Imagine you're over 100 miles off the coast of California in the Pacific Ocean in the middle of the night, with a low pressure front coming through, and you're trying to swim to a basket with a person in your arms while that person yells and tries to hit you with every punch. That was exactly the situation United States Coast Guard Joshua Carlson found himself in while attempting to rescue migrants from a stranded boat.
"It was dark outside, rain, wind, cold, all together," Carlson said. "They actually had other people there, but as far as I know, this migrant boat was out there for a few days because the engine broke."
Although the migrants knew they would have to face the authorities if they tried to enter the United States, that was better than the alternative. However, the method by which they were to be saved was not ideal for all involved. Carlson was assigned to help transport people from the disabled boat into a basket attached to a helicopter. The people in the helicopter lifted the person in the basket to the boat and then dropped them back onto the water. Rinse and repeat.
Joshua Carlson had previously been in that position after rescuing six people in a different situation. He admitted that this case shook him, but in the end it helped him prepare for the next one. This time more people and inclement weather were involved, but he felt he was ready.
"My adrenaline went up and I felt good about where I was," he shared. Then he had to help his first person, who didn't want to go into the water.
"It was chilly but I was in a dry suit. These people were wearing wet clothes and the last thing they want is to jump right back into the Pacific. She wasn't 100% compliant, she grabbed me, tried to pull my mask off, screamed, tried to get away but I brought her back to arm's length. However, she leaned back so far that her head dipped under water.”
Petty Officer First Class Joshua Carlson would eventually take her to the basket so she could be towed to the helicopter. Then he realized that at this point he had to repeat the same feat 20 more times. The helicopter team would help get him closer to the boat so he wouldn't have to swim all the way back. He revealed that only another fought a bigger battle like first person. The others were a bit more cooperative. After Carlson got nine people off the boat and into the basket several yards away, another team came to relieve his.
"They ran out of space [on the helicopter], and they had to fill up,” Carlson said. "There was another crew that was rested and ready to go, but we selfishly thought 'this is our case' because it was so rare, especially in San Diego."
In the end, Carlson's team was relieved and his part in the rescue was over. Despite this, Carlson was in the water for over an hour and a half during this rescue. In total there were 21 people on this boat, but Carlson was personally responsible for helping nine of those people. All 21 would be rescued within hours of receiving the call.
"It was four in the morning when I got home. It was such a crazy job.”
Courtesy of Joshua Carlson
As intense as the job was, that's exactly what Carlson signed up for. He first joined the Coast Guard in 2013 because he felt the importance of serving his country after he and his wife started their family.
"We started quite young and I didn't want to throw in the towel from having a regular job," he recalls. "I wanted to do something that I find extraordinary and challenging."
Carlson also wanted to pursue a physically challenging career as he had just finished playing football while in college. His grandfather served in the Army Air Corps, which later became the United States Air Force, and he has cousins who served in the United States Army. He decided to look at military websites and saw the Coast Guard website that featured helicopter rescues.
"It was so easy to see the guy jump out of the helicopter and I decided I wanted to do that," he said.
Courtesy of Joshua Carlson
Fast forward to the night Joshua Carlson endured such a situation himself and he feels fortunate to have been in that position. Carlson credits his commitment to staying in top shape to his ability to do what he did that fateful night. He prepares for practice every day, knowing that a rest day is inevitable.
“I have three children. The rest day will find itself in there somewhere,” he says, laughing.
Carlson shared that he and his colleagues will be training for about two hours Monday through Friday, which will include both functional training and low-energy cardio. They also do pool work, but it's not about swimming laps.
"We do 2,000 to 3,000 yards, but we also do a lot of buddy tows, we do underwater stuff, we do breath stops, hold rocks, test our lung capacity, stuff like that."
Carlson and others in the Coast Guard don't look for motivation to exercise because they see it as part of their job. Exercising for them is like brushing your teeth or showering for the average person. This commitment to personal fitness excellence can be traced back to his football days.
“I used the facilities. It was a state of the art facility and a tier one strength and conditioning program. That definitely sparked for me.”
While commitment has been at a high level, he has had to shift his focus when it comes to his current career. Lifeguarding is a far cry from training for the gridiron.
"Football is perhaps the least transferrable focus of what I'm doing now," he explained. "It's more about endurance here and I didn't know how to swim laps, stroke technique or anything like that."
Joshua Carlson credits Coast Guard MST Antawn Mark with helping him improve. Mark took Carlson into the pool for hours of training which made a huge difference to him.
"I took everything that he gave me and that was around me and I made it work."
All of that effort and training paid off for the Frazier Park, California native when he received a call telling him he was named Coastguard of the Year for 2022 by Military Times Magazine. He humbly shared that all members who could have been in the same position made the same efforts as he did. netheless, his boss, Tyler Holt, thought he was worthy of recognition. So his name was submitted for nomination by that chief, and Carlson got the honor.
"I had no idea I was even ready for this because he didn't tell me," he said. "It was a surprise because he wanted to see if I got it."
Joshua Carlson did and his story has been shared across numerous platforms. He even traveled to Washington DC for the honor. Ultimately, his story can serve as an example of how people who feel ordinary can do extraordinary things when they choose to join the United States Armed Forces.
"It's a great honor to be able to do and achieve something that many people can't, and it's the only place in the world where you will have the opportunity to do truly incredible things," Carlson said emphatically. “You can never pay for the experience I just had. There is no amount of money to buy this. There is also no amount of money that could take it away from me.”