Saving lives daily part of job

December 21, 1998|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,SUN STAFF

Lt. Joseph DiRenzo III had it planned.

A small Coast Guard vessel would shuttle his elderly parents out to his ship, and they would be escorted on board for the ride of their lives.

But DiRenzo was not able to bring his ship home until too late.

The Coast Guard commanding officer, originally from Severna Park, sailed the USCSC Jefferson Island into Curtis Bay last week, about two years since his parents died within 30 days of each other.

"My biggest regret, even as I finally had the thrill of bringing my own ship back home, was that Mom and Dad weren't here," said DiRenzo, 40, sitting in the dry-docked ship's galley. "It would have been such an amazing moment for them."

Thinking back, DiRenzo can see it all: The day he told his father he was bound for the Naval Academy; the day his father tried to talk him out of it; graduation from the academy and from the Naval War College in Rhode Island; dark nights on rough seas; Caribbean narcotics busts; rescues of desperate and illegal immigrants.

He started out in the Navy, but eight years ago transferred to the Coast Guard.

"We save lives on a daily basis, and there is such an immediate knowledge of the positive effect we have," he said. "There is nothing more rewarding than going home to your family and saying, 'I saved a life today.' "

He skippers a 110-foot cutter with a 16-member crew, enforces fishery laws along the northeast Atlantic Coast and oversees rescues of commercial fishermen and private boaters. He has served two tours of duty in the Caribbean, stopping illegal immigrants and arresting narcotics smugglers.

"I have the world's best job," he said.

While he is docked for about three weeks, he's speaking to children about the profession he adores. He has spoken to middle school and high school students, and, last week, to Jessica Gibson's fourth-grade class at West Annapolis Elementary.

The children gathered around DiRenzo. "How many lives have you saved?" one asked.

"I don't keep score," he said. "That's not important. What's important is the Coast Guard's success as a whole."

"How come you have so many medals and ribbons?" another asked.

"Oh, let's not talk about that," he said. "Heck, I basically just got all these for making my bed perfectly for three years straight."

"I was wondering," said Matt Cole, "is the Coast Guard currently involved in the bombing taking place in Iraq?"

Now, DiRenzo was in his element.

"Well, Matt, that's a great question. I'm not sure how the Coast Guard is participating now, but they played a very important role back in Desert Storm" in the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

From the perspective of a man who has fired bullets and dodged bullets to stop international drug smugglers, he told the pupils to "say no to drugs."

As a father of two who knows the perils of rough water when children don't wear life jackets, he told the youngsters to "always wear life jackets." And as a man educated at some of the finest military institutions in the nation, he told the children to "stay in school and study hard."

"If you remember nothing else from meeting me, remember those three things," he said.

Pub Date: 12/21/98

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