Coast Guardsman in line for award in Bering Sea rescue

Swimmer finished saving 4 fishermen in storm, then passed out from hypothermia.

September 23, 2008 

KENAI -- A Coast Guard swimmer will travel to Washington, D.C., to receive an award for a harrowing rescue in the Bering Sea.

The trip this week will be the third for Petty Officer First Class Wil Milam, stationed in Kodiak. Milam will be awarded a medal for his part in the rescue of a fishing crew in stormy conditions.

On his last trip to Washington, Milam was selected to sit with President Bush's family during the State of the Union Address.

Milam was assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter Mellon in February 2007.

The cutter just before midnight on Feb. 9 was on a mid-patrol break in Dutch Harbor when the Coast Guard took a distress call from the Illusion.

Milam and his helicopter crew left for the scene in 50 mph winds with 60 mph gusts, horizontal rain and poor visibility.

As the helicopter approached the vessel's location, a rescue flare lit up the sky.

The helicopter crew spotted a raft with four survivors. None had survival suits.

The helicopter lowered Milam into the water, then lowered survival suits for the men on the raft.

Milam slid into the water to retrieve the suits and felt the Bering Sea's 40-degree water rush into his own suit.

While battling hypothermia, Milam managed to get all four survivors into survival suits and hoisted up to the helicopter.

Milam managed to get himself back up to the helicopter but passed out from hypothermia. He woke up cocooned in blankets in the Dutch Harbor clinic.

He said decided to become a rescue swimmer when he was in the Navy. He and a buddy took a boat into surf off Point Loma, Calif., and found themselves swamped. A Coast Guard helicopter responded, and when Milam looked up, he saw the rescue swimmer sitting in the door.

"I said, 'I want that guy's job,' " Milam said.

After six years in the Navy, Milam joined the Coast Guard and graduated from swimmer school in 1993. In July, he will have put in 24 years of service.

"Since I graduated swimmer school in '93, I have looked forward to going to work every day. I'll miss it, I'll miss the guys," Milam said.

Milam said he calls Soldotna his hometown, even though he has not lived there yet.

"I'll retire next year, in July, if they'll let me, and then I'll call Soldotna home," Milam said.

Milam's wife, Deb, lives in Soldotna and works for First American Title Insurance Co.

"I love it over there -- the weather is a lot better than Kodiak," Milam said. "What we like about Soldotna, one of the big attractions, is the people. From day one, we felt like we were welcomed into the community."

Anchorage Daily News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service