A Coast Guard member became the second woman in its history to receive the Silver Lifesaving Medal.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Victoria Vanderhaden, a boatswain's mate at Coast Guard Sector Mobile, received the medal for saving two swimmers off the coast of Long Island Sound, New York.
Vanderhaden received the medal in July. Photo courtesy of Facebook.
"It was 2018 and I had just moved to New York and was trying to hit every beach in the area. I hadn't been to Fire Island yet but heard the sunset there was amazing. I have the surf report app on my phone and it said it was going to be six feet. There were people and beach deer everywhere. … But I saw two guys pretty far out in the water and it was like a washing machine out there [with the waves]," Vanderhaden said.
She says she slowly grew more alarmed as she watched and heard someone on the shore yelling "ayúdenme." Although she couldn't understand the Spanish word, Vanderhaden sensed something was wrong. Turning to the couple next to her, she asked if they knew what that word meant. They did: Help me.
Turning to the couple next to her, she asked if they knew what that word meant. They did: Help me.
Vanderhaden immediately headed to the water, instructing people to call the police and the nearby Coast Guard station. She took off her shoes, sweater and started swimming. The rip current was so strong, it pulled her to the first man pretty quickly. Since the other man in the water was in more trouble being further out, she let the first know she'd be back for him and to try to stay afloat.
"When I got to the next guy, he was freaking out and climbing on me a lot. I was propping him up on my knee, holding him and telling him it was going to be okay. I don't even know if he could understand me. Finally, he calmed down and I started swimming with him, pulling and pushing him. Then, we got to the second guy and that's when things got hard," Vanderhaden said.
When she reached the second man in the water, he began grabbing at her in obvious terror. Managing him while also keeping the other man and herself above water was a struggle. It took about 10 minutes just to calm them down.
"I started pushing one and pulling the other. I couldn't see the beach because it had gotten dark and the waves were so high. We finally made it to shore and then the guys were hugging me and thanking me," Vanderhaden said.
She found out later they were in the water almost 45 minutes.
Once she finished giving her statement to the police, she called her senior chief who was the OIC of her assigned duty station. Vanderhaden just briefly told them she had to talk to police but didn't go into detail of what happened.
The police thought she was assigned to Coast Guard Station Fire Island but she was actually part of Coast Guard Station Eatons Neck. For about a week, they couldn't figure out who she was and the sector jokingly started referring to her as the "Ghost Coastie." It wasn't until her mom happened to overhear some of the story that the dots finally got connected back to Vanderhaden.
"It was about a week before anyone knew it was me," Vanderhaden said with a laugh.
Roughly two years later, she received the Silver Lifesaving Medal, with the presenting officer being a familiar face: her father. Vanderhaden's father, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Jason M. Vanderhaden, is the top senior enlisted leader for the Coast Guard. Her brother currently serves too.
"For me, the other military branches making fun of us is one thing but I feel people [the public] think we are just police officers on the water. But it's so much more than that," she said.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Victoria Vanderhaden with her parents. Courtesy photo.
Vanderhaden's father has served since 1988, making the culture of the Coast Guard all she's ever known. She was asked if she thinks she would have jumped in to rescue the men if she hadn't been a coastie.
"That's a difficult question, because I don't know anything but the Coast Guard. In my world and for all of people I live with and work around — all of us would do the same thing," she said.
Then she added a recent conversation she had with a retired Coast Guard master chief who told her that some people think and some people do. He then said, the people who join the Coast Guard do.