Eileen Rose Nelson was a career Coast Guard member and an Alaska Native with a passion for helping people. She was raised in a Yupik family in the community of Igiugig, on the shore of Lake Iliamna, before she joined the Coast Guard in 1991. She served for nearly 23 years, retiring in 2014. Sadly, Nelson passed away in January 2022. But her legacy lives on in the Coast Guard, and among the fond memories shared by her family and shipmates.
She served the majority of her career as a yeoman, providing administrative support and ensuring other Coast Guard members received their pay. Here in Alaska, Nelson is remembered most for her enthusiastic participation in the Kids Don’t Float program. She volunteered to travel to various remote communities across the state to educate children about water safety. Nelson’s desire to help others drove her to support fellow Coast Guard members by volunteering in the Critical Incident Stress Response Program (CISM).
The CISM program is intended to help individuals exposed to critical incidents to identify and cope with their responses to these events. The focus of CISM is to provide “psychological first aid” and to minimize the harmful impacts of job stress, particularly in crisis or emergency situations.
Nelson was called upon after a fatal helicopter accident in Alabama February 28th, 2012. A four-man crew from the Aviation Training Center in Mobile was conducting nighttime training maneuvers and crashed into Mobile Bay, killing all four service members aboard the aircraft.
Nelson applied her CISM training to help others cope with loss during their earliest stages of tremendous grief, still felt throughout the service.
The care and compassion Nelson demonstrated after the crash and throughout her career began with her family life in Igiugig.
“As her younger sister, she would come pick me up from school and walk me home,” said Ida Nelson. “She loved taking care of people. She referred to those she supervised in the Coast Guard as ‘her kids.’ She treated everyone like family, everyone she served with and especially those who worked under her.”
Ida relayed the story behind Eileen’s decision to join the Coast Guard.
“When Eileen passed away last year, I received an email from one of her former teachers, Mike Roberts, who told me Eileen reached out to him to thank him for influencing her in a way that led to her service.”
Roberts said he invited a friend who was a member of the Air Force to come visit Igiugig during a career day held at the school. His friend relayed stories to the students about serving and the places he’d been, but also talked about other branches of the military.
“Soon after that visit, Eileen was entered in a bilingual writing contest,” said Roberts. “She wrote about the career day and military visitor. Eileen’s essay earned her first place in the contest and a trip to a bilingual conference in Anchorage.”
According to her sister Ida, the conference and trip to Anchorage was an eye-opening event for Eileen that exposed her to the Coast Guard and life outside Igiugig.
“After the conference, Eileen knew she wanted to experience life outside our small community,” said Ida. “At the time, Iguigig had a population of 32 people. Eileen knew the Coast Guard would allow her to live and travel to other places not only in the U.S., but the world.”
“Years after she left Igiugig, Eileen posted a photo of her award-winning essay to Facebook,” said Roberts. “I was stunned to learn she’d held onto it all those years and attributed her Coast Guard career to writing the essay and winning the contest.”
“I am seven years older than Eileen was,” said Eileen’s sister Sherry. “I was proud she made the choice to join the military, leave home, and go out on her own. She moved away from home and our close-knit family and community to work in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Topeka, Charleston, Seattle, and New Orleans, and sailing to many places aboard Coast Guard Cutter Gallatin WHEC 721 for a few years. She always thought of her family while she was serving and we received gifts from her, and I got post cards from all the places she went. We wrote letters at first and talked on land line phone calls, then through email chat rooms, then cell phones. I eagerly anticipated her letters and phone calls. Wherever she was stationed, I went to visit her. Sometimes I went alone, and other times I took family members along.”
Sherry said Eileen’s decision to join the military is not especially common for Native Alaskans.
“It is difficult and uncommon for Native Alaskans to leave their tight-knit communities and their families,” she said. “I am very proud of her decision to serve the United States Coast Guard. It took her places I only read about. It was great to see her pride she held while serving. She always kept in contact with us and made us feel important while serving. And when our father passed away, she traveled home.”
One of Eileen’s best friends in the Coast Guard said she was honored to serve alongside her.
“Eileen and I were stationed together at Sector New Orleans from 2013 until she retired,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer retired Jennifer Hull. “I learned a lot from Eileen about her Alaska Native culture. She loved children, and especially loved being an aunt to her nieces and nephews. We remained friends after retirement and what I will remember most about Eileen is that she enjoyed life! She loved adventure and trying new things, laughing, and just being happy. I was envious of her bravery. Eileen was very selective who she let into her circle of friends, and I feel very honored to have been one of them.”
A Coast Guard ceremonial honor guard team from U.S. Coast Guard Sector Anchorage joined Eileen’s family in Igiugig in January 2022 to help lay Eileen to rest. Her legacy lives on here in Alaska through the Kids Don’t Float Program, and through our shared stories about her life and Coast Guard Career.
This work, Coast Guard remembers Alaska Native shipmate Eileen Rose Nelson, by PO1 Nate Littlejohn, identified by DVIDS, must comply with the restrictions shown on https://www.dvidshub.net/about/copyright.