Coast Guard rescue swimmer from Kodiak honored in D.C.

Erika Bolstad

WASHINGTON -- Like a lot of true heroes, Willard "Wil" Milam downplays his bravery.

On a cold, dark February morning a year ago, Milam, a Coast Guard petty officer from Kodiak, jumped from a helicopter into the 45-degree waters of the Bering Sea to rescue four fishermen stranded on a life raft.

Milam, a 42-year-old rescue swimmer, was awarded one of the Coast Guard's top honors: the 2007 Coast Guard Foundation Award for Heroism.

Monday night, Milam got a national nod for his lifesaving skills as he sat with first lady Laura Bush while her husband gave his final State of the Union address.

"It's pretty overwhelming and humbling," Milam said. "All these accolades, awards and recognition ... I was just doing my job, folks -- what was I supposed to do?"

Sunday, Milam and his wife got an exclusive West Wing tour of the White House. Monday, Milam had lunch with Alaska Republican Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, whom he described as very "down to earth."

Milam said that while he enjoyed his visit to the nation's capital, he is happy to return home to duty at Air Station Kodiak. An Arizona native, Milam now considers Alaska home and plans to stay in the state once he retires from the Coast Guard.

Because of the brutal conditions, a posting in Kodiak is considered one of the most challenging -- yet rewarding -- assignments in the Coast Guard, said Cmdr. Brendan McPherson, a spokesman for the commandant of the Coast Guard.

"Routinely, our rescue personnel encounter some of the most challenging and dangerous rescue operations," McPherson said.

And as for the hero who knows what it's like to swim in the near-freezing waters of the Bering Sea? Monday he laughed at how everyone bundles up in Washington, where temperatures hovered just above 40 degrees Monday.

"Washingtonians think that 40 degrees is cold," he said.