Aviation Survival Technician 2 Joshua Carlson wanted to do something “exceptional” with his life. That’s how he knew the Coast Guard was for him.

“I saw the Coast Guard website and saw the guy jump out of the helicopter — I was sold immediately. That was exactly what I wanted to do,” Carlson, who is stationed at U.S. Coast Guard Air Station San Diego, told Military Times.

“Looking back I don’t really know what was going through my head because I didn’t know how to swim,” Carlson said.

That’s no longer an issue.

Carlson, 30, who saved the lives of nine people suffering from hypothermia in a migrant vessel off the coast of Southern California, has been selected as Military Times’ 2022 Coast Guardsman of the Year.

In January 2021, Carlson was on duty when an alarm went off regarding a disabled panga boat more than 100 miles offshore. Carlson’s team was initially diverted to another emergency, but later arrived on scene to provide overwatch for the disabled vessel in the event something went wrong while awaiting approval from the chain of command to accept the mission.

“These people are … hypothermic and they’re malnourished,” Carlson said. “And what really got the ball rolling was the fact that they … might be drifting into San Nicolas Island.”

Once they got the green light, their helicopter landed on the Navy dock landing ship Pearl Harbor to refuel, then took off to hover near the migrant vessel.

Carlson dropped into the water and swam to the vessel where he found 21 people “under the influence of panic.” All but one were outfitted with lifejackets. The plan was for Carlson to swim with each of them individually so they could be hoisted in a basket up into the helicopter.

“Between each person, I would swim back to the boat, and it was like over 300 yards in heavy surf,” Carlson said. “I came back to the boat after three of them, I was like, ‘Oh no, like, this is not swimming in a pool. This is extremely exhausting.’ ”

Because of a similar incident in which Carlson was involved in Corpus Christi, he knew he couldn’t continue swimming back to the vessel each time, so he insisted the helicopter get closer to the ship for the subsequent rescues.

“They were smart,” he said. “They saw me swimming up and one would just jump off.”

After swimming for an hour and a half, another crew was poised to relieve Carlson and his team to rescue the remaining 12 migrants, thus avoiding crew fatigue and a waiver needed to continue flying.

“If we absolutely had to, we would have, but there was another crew ready to go in San Diego, like ready to fly up and take the rest of the case,” Carlson said.

Carlson received a unit award for his actions rescuing the nine migrants, he said. But he noted that anyone he works with is just as competent — the timing just allowed him to participate in the mission, he said.

“I just happened to get lucky,” Carlson said. “That’s the simple truth of it — that guys get good cases on duty nights, It doesn’t mean anything other than you are on duty that night. And any one of the guys I work with could have been on duty that night and done an even better job than I did.”

Carlson previously participated in operations for Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Hurricane Florence in 2018. He received the Air Medal for his actions assisting survivors in Hurricane Harvey and the Coast Guard Commendation Medal for his efforts the following year.

“Physically, it’s the hardest when there’s a big case, but that’s also the most rewarding part — when you get to save a life and bring somebody home,” Carlson said.

During his free time, Carlson volunteers with Support the Enlisted Project, a nonprofit that assists junior enlisted personnel with groceries, diapers and baby formula, among other things. He also volunteers with his unit’s rescue swimmer candidate program as the lead mentor to prepare candidates for the Coast Guard’s Helicopter Rescue Swimmer School.

Carlson joined the service in 2013, and headed off to AST “A” school for six months. He didn’t have a background in competitive swimming or water polo and admitted there was a steep learning curve for him becoming an aviation survival technician.

“I’m definitely not a natural swimmer like some guys, they just pick it up quick and they go,” Carlson said. “It took me a really long time.”

His advice to other Coast Guardsmen who find themselves in a time-sensitive crisis? Don’t rush, and tackle the situation with small goals.

“I’m not thinking of 21 people, I’m thinking of one person at a time and I’m making sure that the energy I put into that one person is going to add up. … You want to make sure you’re on a working trajectory to complete the mission,” Carlson said.

“If I were giving advice to a new guy, that’s what I would say: Just slow, steady, take it one step at a time … have the big picture in sight,” he said.

Military Times’ Service Members of the Year


Soldier of the Year

Sailor of the Year

Airman of the Year

Marine of the Year

Coast Guardsman of the Year

Veteran of the Year