Their Stories Told

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Keith Hoefer

Always Ready To Serve

Founded on August 4, 1790, the U.S. Coast Guard is one of the smallest military branches, numbering roughly 57,000 Coast Guardsmen in comparison to the Army’s nearly 452,000 soldiers. Small but mighty, the Coast Guard lives up to its motto “Semper Paratus”, Always Ready. With a variety of equipment and stations located throughout the U.S. coasts, Great Lakes, and rivers, the Coast Guard fulfills diverse roles and missions including security, search and rescue, drug interdiction, navigation, assisting naval battle groups, and various environmental missions near U.S. borders and beyond.

Chief Keith Hoefer has been a Coast Guardsman for nearly 22 years. Growing up as a military kid, Hoefer was fascinated by military equipment like tanks, Humvees, and helicopters. When his father retired from the Air Force, Keith was introduced to a new interest in water sports. Hoefer recalls looking at his life jacket after a day of wakeboarding or water skiing and seeing the words “U.S. Coast Guard” printed on the jacket as a stamp of approval. His interest grew, and when a family vacation to California provided the opportunity for Keith to spend the night on a Coast Guard ship and take a ride with a recruiter, Keith knew that he wanted to make the Coast Guard his career and joined after high school graduation.

Hoefer completed boot camp at Camp May, New Jersey, and became a Machinery Technician after completing A-school in Yorktown, Virginia. After marrying his high school sweetheart, Keith was assigned to his first duty station in Alaska on Coast Guard Cutter (CGC) Acushnet, a 213-foot long ship responsible for sea patrols in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. As Keith worked as an engineer, he and his crew helped to complete search and rescue and law enforcement missions. Being away from his family was difficult for Keith, especially being away from his new wife. His vessel rotated between port and underway, spending about 60 days underway followed by 45-50 days in port. Days underway were spent completing missions, while days in port consisted of ship maintenance, training, medical check-ups, and time spent with family. Keith’s wife, Shyan, worked with an ombudsman for the crew, passing information from the ship’s crew to their respective families, organizing potlucks, and building a support network for herself and other Coast Guard families.

Keith remembers what it was like sailing through rough Arctic seas, “like something from Deadliest Catch”. Hoefer says he often prayed for safety as he looked down the passageway of the ship to see doors twisting and great waves crashing. After three years in Ketchikan, Alaska, and the birth of his oldest daughter, Hoefer transferred to Yorktown, Virginia, with his family. He became an instructor at Machinery Technician A-school, where he had previously completed his own training, teaching industrial hydraulics for four years. Hoefer enjoyed teaching and being able to go home to his family each night, especially after two more children were born in Virginia.

Following his time in Virginia, Hoefer was transferred again to a base in Seattle, Washington, to become part of the Polar Mat team. The team was responsible for doing heavy maintenance to cutters in port, like a pit crew for a race car. After four years in that role, the Polar Star became his crew, and Keith remained in Seattle. Chief Petty Officer Hoefer served in the Main Propulsion Division, for the CGC Polar Star crew. Their ship sailed the world on 7-month-long patrols, reaching 500 miles north of Alaska halfway to the North Pole and all the way down to Antarctica. Keith sailed to Antarctica three times in his three-year tour. The Polar Star is part of the Coast Guard’s ice operations with a mission to break out a channel of thick ice so that supply ships can reach the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station on Ross Island. The heavy icebreaker breaks a 20-mile channel of 16 to 18-foot-thick ice, so that cargo ships can replenish supplies and fuel for generators and equipment to complete the next year’s missions.

The long trips to Antarctica were taxing, and Keith was again separated from his family. The ship left near Thanksgiving each year and was gone for Christmas and New Year’s holidays. The crew celebrated holidays together as they all remained far from families, having special meals and organizing a white elephant gift exchange. Crew members even did swim calls, where they jumped into the ocean along various parts of the route. When asked if Keith participated in any swim calls, he quickly answered, “No way! There’s sharks!” The route ran from Alaska to Hawaii, then Australia, and finally Antarctica. With each stop along the route, the crew enjoyed four days at each port where the ship stopped. Keith’s wife was able to meet him in Hawaii for his port time one year, which was a blessing for him. The journey takes about two months, as the ship travels about 22 knots, or 25 miles per hour. On his final trip to Antarctica, a National Geographic film crew sailed with them. The ship and crew were featured on the mini series Continent 7, and Keith can be seen for a brief period during the feature. He jokes that this 5-second clip is his closest claim to fame.

After his time with the Polar Star, Keith joined the CGC Healy in Seattle, another ice cutter and the Coast Guard’s largest ship. The ship had only 80 crew members compared to the Polar Star’s 160 thanks to the state-of-the-art equipment. Hoefer says that 40 scientists were present on that ship as well since it is an Arctic research vessel. That ship completed scientific missions such as underwater floor mapping and water sampling that helps researchers track how water circulates the globe in its currents. Scientists looked for undiscovered Arctic life and collected ocean floor dirt samples in addition to the Arctic Research missions.

On the journey home, Keith was able to have some of his favorite memories on what the Coast Guard calls a “Tiger Cruise”. On the last port call before returning home, some crew members and scientists would opt to fly home to open bunk spaces for the remaining crew’s families. Crew members could have the opportunity to have one family member meet them at the port and sail back home with them, allowing them to have a sneak peek at what their loved ones experience on the ship. Keith’s brother, father, and wife were all able to join him on different occasions, and it was special to have his family experience what couldn’t be truly explained through words. Although Keith says his wife did get seasick, it was an experience they will both cherish.

After his time on the Healy, Keith had his proudest military accomplishment by being commissioned to Chief Warrant Officer. In a six-month application process, Hoefer made an initial application which was scored, interviewed with a commanding officer, and achieved a score above the set bench line. After an examination of all his documents and scores against the other candidates, Keith came out number one. As a result, Hoefer had first pick of the available assignments and chose a ship in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2019.

Hoefer’s new ship in Florida was a 210-foot drug intervention vessel and was one of several in that area that is operational every day of the year. The ship sailed with a helicopter and was responsible for stopping drug runners from smuggling substances into the United States. Keith recounted one of his most exciting experiences when his crew was able to disable and capture two boats during the night as smugglers tried to travel across the Caribbean from Jamaica. After two long days and some amazing teamwork from their crew, the Coast Guard recovered 8,000 pounds of pure cocaine. Keith loved his work on that ship, but when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Hoefer opted for a change. In 2021, Keith made the move to California, where he now works as an Availability Project Manager. Although he has been in the Coast Guard for nearly 22 years, Hoefer says he has no intention of stopping until he reaches at least 30 years of service.

Throughout his experiences, Hoefer says, “The Coast Guard has exceeded my expectations. I had originally planned to do four years and get out. Now it’s become my whole career.” Throughout his time of service, Keith has worked hard to stay rooted in his faith, and to build his family on that foundation. Hoefer described the challenges of worshiping on a ship during months of underway, where Sunday worship functions more as peer-to-peer Bible study. It was often hard to find peers of a similar faith background, but Keith used his iPhone to read and study the Bible in his downtime. His Pastor would email him sermons to read each Sunday.

The Christian Service Members' Handbook was developed with our Christian Warriors who are away from their homes in mind. This uniform pocket-sized faith and worship resource helps them take God's Word with them wherever they are sent.

WELS Military Services provides free copies of the Christian Service Members' Handbook and New Testament Bible to active-duty service members. Sign up for these resources and others at www.wels.net/refer

ELS active-duty service members can contact the Bethany Lutheran College Bookstore for a complementary copy of the Christian Service Members' Handbook, provided through a generous grant from the ELS Board of Christian Services.

Copies are also available for interested veterans, families, and civilians through Northwestern Publishing House. For more information, see our Handbook page.


Written by Natalie Lendt, 2023
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