Coast Guard Family Gets Big Surprise from the Top

Category: News
Created on Thursday, 20 December 2018 15:21
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By LT Kellen Browne

Air Station Sitka

What was billed as a personnel uniform inspection was a thin but effective cover for a wonderful surprise for one high flier at Air Station Sitka Monday.

Like the rest of the 125 member unit, Petty Officer Michael Vanberkom was putting the finishing touches on his uniform at 8 a.m. in preparation for a routine unit-wide uniform inspection conducted by the commanding officer. After the crew of Air Station Sitka formed up into two perfectly aligned divisions, and the unit was called to attention for the inspection, the atmosphere changed when the commander of U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area, Vice Admiral Linda Fagan appeared in front of the formation. 

The unexpected arrival of one of the highest ranking officers in the United States Coast Guard was meticulously planned and a surprise to all but the most senior members of Air Station Sitka. The purpose? To recognize and meritoriously advance Petty Officer Michael Vanberkom to the rank of 1st Class Petty Officer. 

An advancement, the term meaning a promotion of an enlisted member to the next rank, is a special occasion that occurs a handful of times throughout a service member’s career. Time in service, experience, conduct, performance on written examinations, and supervisor evaluations all play a part in a typical advancement. However, the typical advancement isn’t a surprise officiated by a 3-star Admiral.

Michael Vanberkom enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard at 19, in 2006. The son of a service member, he was born in the Philippines and grew up in Virginia and Bremerton, Washington, graduating from Olympic High School. After finishing Aviation Electrical Technician “A”-School, he reported to his first aviation unit at Coast Guard Air Station Astoria, Oregon, where he met his wife Anita. (She was only told that there would be a surprise award for her husband on Monday morning.) In tow and marveling at all the excitement were the couple’s four children, Haddie, 6, Josie, 4, Phin, 2, and Alistair, only 3 months old. 

Now on their third tour, Vanberkom thought of his family as the Air Station Sitka commanding officer read aloud his advancement certificate before the entire unit. Petty Officer Vanberkom was nominated by the command for a special meritorious advancement ahead of the typical timeline. He was selected as one of only two members to receive the honor by Vice Admiral Fagan, who commands more than 18,000 Coast Guard members in the Pacific Area, which includes Western half of the United States, Hawaii, Guam and Alaska. 

Fagan spoke of her decision to choose Vanberkom above all others put forward for this honor, describing his commitment to helping and developing others, technical acumen, stewardship, and outstanding performance on the ground and in the air.

Vanberkom, who is a flight mechanic on Air Station Sitka’s MH-60T with over 1,000 hours of flight time and 15 lives saved, answered the call this summer helping to locate a downed commercial aircraft on Prince of Wales Island in July, and hoisted all 11 people on-board to safety in a case that garnered national and international media attention. 

Despite all the recent attention, Vanberkom is as humble as ever. Having no idea that he was going to receive this honor, he could only acknowledge the sacrifice his family has made – especially that of his wife Anita, who found out the true purpose of the “inspection” only 10 minutes prior. After innumerable duty nights, hours he’s stayed late at work either to train a junior member, perform maintenance on the unit’s helicopters, give a tour to a local community kids group, or simply to study for his own professional development, he was proud to have Anita and his children at his side for the occasion.

As he always does, Petty Officer 1st Class Vanberkom was quick to recognize all those with whom he works. From the Chief Petty Officers and Command who nominated him, to his peers and those he trains and leads in his shop, he emphasized the team aspect of his job. He characterized his philosophy at work simply: “Go to work, put your best foot forward, look out for each other, and get the job done.” By the hundreds of calls, texts, and messages he’s received after the secret was out, he seems to have gotten the job very well done.