Imagine being over 100 miles away from 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 with a person in your arms to a basket while that person is screaming and trying to hit you every stroke of the way. That was the exact situation United States Coast Guardsman Joshua Carlson was in while trying to rescue migrants from a stranded boat.
“It was dark out, rain, wind, cold, all of the above,” said Carlson. “They actually had other people on scene, but from what I understand, this migrant boat had been out there for a couple of days because the engine broke.”
Even though the migrants knew they would have to face authorities for trying to enter the United States, that was better than the alternative. However, the method of which they would be rescued wasn’t ideal for anyone involved. Carlson was tasked with helping transport people from the disabled boat to a basket that was connected to a helicopter. The people on the helicopter would lift the person in the basket to the boat, then they would drop it back down to the water. Rinse and repeat.
Joshua Carlson had been in this position before, having rescued six people in another situation. He admitted that case rocked him, but in the end, it helped prepare him for the next one. This one involved more people and more severe weather, but he felt he was ready.
“My adrenaline was going, and I was feeling good about where I was at,” he shared. Then, he had to help his first person, who didn’t want to go in the water at all.
“It was chilly, but I was in a dry suit. These people were in wet clothes, and the last thing they want to do is jump right back in the Pacific. She was 100% noncompliant, she was grabbing me, trying to pull my mask, screaming, trying to get away, but I got her back to arms’ length. However, she was leaning so far back that her head was going underwater.”
Petty Officer First Class Joshua Carlson would eventually get her to the basket so she could be pulled up to the helicopter. He then realized that at the time, he would have to repeat that same feat 20 more times. The team on the helicopter would help carry him closer to the boat so he didn’t have to swim the entire way back. He disclosed that only one other put up a major fight like the first person did. The others were a little more cooperative. After Carlson had moved nine people from the boat to the basket, which was several yards away, another team came in to relieve his.
“They were running out of space [on the helicopter], and they needed to refuel,” said Carlson. “There was another crew rested and ready to go, but we selfishly were like ‘this is our case’ because it was so rare, especially in San Diego.”
In the end, Carlson’s team were relieved, and his portion of the rescue was over. Nonetheless, Carlson was in the water for over an hour and a half during this rescue. There were 21 people in total on that boat, but Carlson was personally responsible for helping nine of those people. All 21 would be rescued within hours of the call coming in.
“It was four in the morning before I got home. It was such a crazy job.”
As intense as that job was, it was 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 pretty young, and I didn’t want to throw in the towel of having a regular job,” he recalled. “I wanted to do something that I found to be exceptional and challenging.”
Carlson wanted to take on a physically challenging career as well because he had just finished playing football while he was in college. His grandfather had served in the Army Air Corps, which would later become the United States Air Force, and he has cousins that served in the United States Army. He decided to check out military websites and saw the Coast Guard site, which featured helicopter rescues.
“It was as simple as seeing the dude jumping out of the helicopter, and I decided that was what I wanted to do,” he stated.
Fast forward to the night that Joshua Carlson lived such a situation himself, and he feels fortunate to have been in that position. Carlson credits his commitment to staying in top shape for his ability to do what he did that fateful night. He prepares to train every single day, even though he knows a rest day is inevitable.
“I have three kids. That rest day is going to find its way in there somewhere,” he said with a laugh.
Carlson shared that he and his co-workers will train Monday through Friday for around two hours that will include functional training as well as energy conserving cardio. They also do pool work, but it isn’t swimming laps on repeat.
“We’re doing 2,000 to 3,000 yards, but we’re also doing a lot of Buddy Tows, we’re doing underwater stuff, we’re doing breathing holds, holding bricks, testing our lung capacity, things like that.”
Carlson and others in the Coast Guard don’t search for motivation to train because they consider it a part of what they do. Training to them is like brushing teeth or taking showers for the average person. That commitment to personal fitness excellence can be traced back to his football days.
“I took advantage of the facilities. It was a state-of-the-art facility, and it was a Tier One strength and conditioning program. That definitely kicked it off for me.”
While the commitment was to a high standard, he had to shift his focus when it came to his current career. Rescue swimming is a far cry from training for the gridiron.
“Football may be the least transferable focus to what I do now,” he explained. “This is more about endurance, and I didn’t know how to swim laps, stroke technique, or anything like that.”
Joshua Carlson credits MST Antawn Mark of the Coast Guard for helping him improve. Mark would take Carlson to the pool for hours of training, which made a big difference for him.
“I took everything 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 got a call informing him that he was named 2022 Military Times Magazine Coast Guardsman of the Year. He humbly shared that any of the members that could’ve been in the same position would’ve made the same effort he did. Nonetheless, his chief, Tyler Holt, felt he was worthy of recognition. So, his name was submitted for nomination by that chief, and Carlson was granted the honor.
“I had no idea that I was even up for it because he didn’t tell me,” he said. “It was a surprise because he wanted to see if I would get it.”
Joshua Carlson did, and his story was shared across numerous platforms. He even traveled to Washington D.C. because of the honor. At the end of the day, his story can serve as an example that people that may feel ordinary can do extraordinary things if they choose to be a part of the United States Armed Forces.
“It’s such an honor to be able to do something and accomplish something that a lot of people can’t do, and it’s the only place in the world that you’re going to have the opportunity to do truly incredible things,” Carlson said emphatically. “You can never pay for the experience I just had. There’s no amount of money that’s going to buy that. There’s also no amount of money that can take it away from me.”