Nick Clairmont: How did you get started as a helicopter pilot and why did you join the Coast Guard?
Tom Huntley: It was right after September 11th, 2001. At the time I was working in the business sector in a sales job out in northern California. I didn't particularly like that job. When 9/11 happened, it shook all of us. And for me, it shook me in two ways: One was a draw to patriotism, but probably moreso was a call to do something that actually mattered. In my job at the time, I felt like I could either go to work or not go to work and nothing really mattered.
A few weeks after 9/11, my wife said, "Since you obviously don't like your job, what would you do if you could do whatever you wanted?" I said, "I'd either join the Coast Guard or become a firefighter." Then she said, "Well, why don't you go figure out if you can do one of those things?" I went to see a recruiter. I was eligible for officer school, but opted to enlist instead and spent the next four years as a surf-rescue boat driver in Washington state on the Columbia River. Then, I had my opportunity to go to officer's school, and I did. After an initial tour in the law-enforcement side of the Coast Guard, I got a chance to go to flight school and that was in 2006, 10 years ago.
The whole thing was almost an aside at first. These were kind of foolish dreams that I thought I would never be able to do. I felt entrenched at all of 25 years old. I had to put food on the table and pay rent and we had a dog—all these responsibilities that weren’t actually that much, looking back 20 years later. The Coast Guard really did appeal to me, partially because it entailed being part of the military combined with the humanitarian and life-saving mission.
Clairmont: Did you have any previous aviation experience before you went to flight school?
Huntley: No, I didn't have any. The closest thing I had was a frequent-flyer card. I didn't grow up wanting to be a pilot like many of my colleagues did, but I see aviation in the Coast Guard as such a powerful way of accomplishing our mission.
We have many missions, the most notable of which is search and rescue, but it's not the only one. In the public's eye, search and rescue is what gets the press and the attention of the American people, because we save lives.
Clairmont: Some people may not know the Coast Guard is a branch of the military. Can you speak to how the Coast Guard fits into the military at large?
Huntley: First and foremost, the Coast Guard is part of the military. We are one of the five branches of the armed services, and in that regard equal to our four slightly better-known Department of Defense brethren: Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.
We are not in the Department of Defense, and for good reason. The Department of Defense and all of its branches cannot enforce U.S. law due to the Posse Comitatus Act. For us, one of our main purposes is to enforce domestic law, so we are outside of the Department of Defense and therefore in the Department of Homeland Security.