Gulf Power employee remembers Katrina rescues during Coast Guard experience
(EDITOR'S Note: This is the second story in a series of articles that will run through Veterans Day on Nov. 11 featuring Gulf Power employees who have served in the military.)
PENSACOLA, Florida - Matt Henderson’s military career in the Coast Guard gave him the opportunity to help others in need, but also to stop others from hurting people through drugs.
The Substation tech at the Panama City office served from 2001-06. He was going to join the Marines with a friend, but veered to a different branch.
He liked being around the beach, so he thought the Coast Guard — and its water-based operations — would be a good fit for him.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said. “When I left home to report to boot camp, I was wearing a T-shirt and flip flops. When I arrived in New Jersey, there was eight inches of snow.”
But once he got through boot camp and became a 2nd Class Petty Officer, he left the snow behind. He was stationed in Grand Isle, Louisiana., the southernmost part of the state, but spent time in Guam and Puerto Rico.
Most of the time he worked narcotics interdiction, boarding vessels and fishing boats on the high seas. He said there were a few “altercations.”
“The biggest thing was the difference in culture,” he said. “I’m American, but we dealt with people from other countries.”
Many of the boats they boarded and inspected were at sea for 2-3 months at a time. He recalls once inspecting inside a freezer and there was a bag hanging from the ceiling.
“We thought it was a side of beef, but it turned out to be a crew member who had died during the voyage,” he said. “I’m not sure if they should be hanging a dead guy with the ham, but they didn’t have any other place to put the body.”
His duties moved inland later when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck Louisiana in 2005.
After Katrina, he worked helicopter rescue operations, picking up residents stranded on their roof in New Orleans. He said if you weren’t sleeping you were rescuing people.
“It was quite a sight. It was very surreal and a testament to the goodwill of people.”
When Rita struck a month later, Henderson shifted to Lake Charles, Louisiana, where he oversaw operations at a command post at the port where workers were stationed.
He joined Gulf Power in 2008 at Plant Smith and later moved to the Substation group.
Henderson recommends joining the military as a way to experience new ideas and cultures. While he will be working on Veterans Day on Nov. 11, he will be thinking about others who served.
“I’m usually thinking about the price that was paid in order for me to have that freedom,” he said. “Freedom is not free; there’s a cost associated with that. A lot of people paid a greater sacrifice than I did.”