Service truly what brought family together for local couple

Scott Swanson

This is the story of two military veterans who start their adult lives without much of a real plan, but who took opportunities that led them together, and for whom it’s worked out pretty well.

It’s a story with a lot of tendrils, which, remarkably, have wound together in a remarkable fashion.

By her own admission, Suzette Andersen didn’t have a lot of focus coming out of high school in San Diego Calif.

“I always struggled to get good grades in school,” she said.

Coming from a family in which at least the three previous generations had all served in the military, that seemed like her best option. Specifically, the Coast Guard.

“I could have gone to any branch,” Suzette said. “I chose the Coast Guard because of their recruiting pitch. All the other branches of the service started out their spiel: ‘Women in this service can’t do these things.’

“The Coast Guard started out,’ Women in the Coast Guard can serve on any ship, can gain any rating, can serve any specialty.’

“It was not that I was planning to serve in any of the specialties that were prohibited in other branches. I could have gone to any branch of service. My ASVAB scores were good and high.”

Suzette’s father was serving in the Navy, which is why they lived in San Diego.

Remarkably, his job as a teacher at the Top Gun school in “Fightertown USA,” the nickname for the former Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego, was a block away from where a teen named Eric Andersen lived, on and off, with his mother.

It was in Sweet Home, though, while he lived with a foster family, that he decided to join the military, dropping out of high school as a junior and returning to San Diego, where he enlisted in June of 1979 – in the Coast Guard.

He went to basic training at Alameda, Calif., part of the last group to go through boot camp at that location; after his class graduated the Coast Guard consolidated its basic training at Cape May, N.J.

That was where Suzette was introduced to the service, after enlisting in August of 1980 in the Tri-Cities area of Washington where her family had moved.

When she graduated from boot camp, she was initially assigned to the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. – where her grandfather had served in that branch and where, she noted, her mother and father grew up and met.

“That was a super job,” she said.

Six months later she was in Petaluma, Calif., where she was trained in administration and got involved in training and assignments of reservists, the field in which she continued for the next 16-odd years.

Eric, meanwhile, was assigned as a seaman apprentice to a high-endurance cutter, the Mellon, based in Honolulu, Hawaii, following basic training.

“I was just a deckhand,” he said. “I had no specialty. We spent very little time in Hawaii, most of it was in Alaska or the Central Pacific area.”

The ship was at sea for two months at a time, which didn’t help the fact that he got seasick easily. Over two years, mostly at sea, his crew swapped ships in Alaska to the Monroe, which returned to Hawaii to be based there.

“I was always seasick when I was on the ship, always,” he said.

He also didn’t have goals, he said. He was color blind, so that eliminated some possible duty options such as lookout or security watch, and “I had no ambition toward any speciality. I just did not know what I wanted to do.

“I was always stuck working in the mess hall, the laundry. I did that without complaint for 15 months, but I was still a seaman apprentice.”

One day, one of the ship’s chief officers sat him down for a chat.

“He told me he needed help in the personnel office and asked me if I wanted to work with him. He taught me the trade.”

That galvanized Eric, he said.

“I took correspondence courses on the ships and advanced.”

He got promoted and was sent to Seattle in late 1980.

That was where Suzette had wound up, after her training in Petaluma. Though they didn’t work in the same office – he was stationed on the administrative side, she worked in training records, they got to know each other in a group of young “yeomen,” the administrative staff who handle personnel for the Coast Guard.

Thanks to Eric’s late slow start aboard ship, Suzette had been newly promoted to one rank above him when he met.

“I was up there for a month and they had a birthday party for one of the civilian secretaries in the office,” he recalled. “Coffee, cake, kind of a messy situation.”

She took advantage, he said.

“She said, ‘Seaman Yeoman Andersen, you clean up this mess.’ Everybody laughed in the office. That was her very first order to someone.”

They started hanging out with six other young people their age.

“We had a study group to study and take these tough tests,” Suzette said. “We were competing with everybody in the Coast Guard who wanted these promotions. We all studied and then we went out and did what young people do, we hung out and went to discos.

“We are still close with those people. We are lifelong friends.”

By this time they were equal in rank, both non-commissioned officers. They also were realizing that they had a special friendship.

Eric was transferred in 1983 to the Coast Guard cutter Fir.

“After six months of that, we decided we were best of friends and we should be married.”

In the interim, Eric had taken a test aboard ship to be promoted to the rank above Suzette, so at the next birthday party, “you can only guess what happened. Everybody died laughing. They remembered her doing that to me.”

Their colleagues were surprised when they tied the knot in 1985, “because nobody knew,” Suzette said. “We would be working together in the office, and nobody would know.”

Unlike many military families, their life was pretty stable they said, as they stayed in the Seattle area, where their three daughters Michelle, Ashley and Elizabeth were born – all in the same hospital, with the same pediatrician, “which is amazing for a military family,” Eric said. “We were very fortunate.”

They’ve had a good relationship throughout, the Andersens said.

In 1994, when a storm capsized boats during a sailing regatta in Puget Sound, they volunteered to mobilize reservists for rescue operations.

“We were working together in the command center, both just doing our thing, calling people, coordinating,” Suzette recalled. “As we were wrapping things up, we started talking about who was going to go get the kids. Somebody asked if we were related. They’d never caught on. It just blew their minds that we worked that well together without conflicts. Our primary focus was on the mission at that time.”

In 1989, they were transferred to Galveston, Texas, where Eric was assigned to the Valiant, a Coast Guard cutter involved in law enforcement – drug interdiction, migrant interdiction, a lot of it in the Caribbean area.

“We did plenty of seizures, chases, stuff like that,” he said. Cuba at the time was receiving weapons and other embargoed items from North Korea, which added to their responsibilities.

“I just remember coming across boats trying to cross from Haiti to Miami, just full of Haitian migrants,” Eric said. “They were dehydrated, hungry. The boats were so overloaded we’d have to help them get on another ship.”

Plus, State Department employees were on board to process asylum seekers, so “there was a lot of processing before we could take them where we could take them.”

Additionally, protections of sea turtles had been enacted, so Coast Guard patrols had to check shrimp boats to make sure they were using required turtle excluder equipment.

“There were protesters; it was a big deal,” Eric said.

The Valiant travled as far north as Virginia and south as far as Honduras, he said.

While the family lived in Galveston, they also weathered a hurricane in 1991, the couple recalled.

By the mid-1990s, the Andersens were back in Seattle and the military branches were downsizing. Opportunity for progression was scant and they decided to take the opportunity to retire just shy of 20 years.

Eric had always wanted to live in Sweet Home again, and although Suzette enjoyed the advantages offered by city life, she agreed to give it a shot. He retired six months before she did to get a head start.

“We came to Oregon with nothing – no family,” he said. “I had my foster family. We left the kids in Seattle with Grandma and started looking for temporary jobs. They did temp work, but nothing permanent had materialized.

Then, in September of 1996, just as they reached a deadline they’d imposed – the start of school, Suzette found a house and Eric was offered a job at the Foster plywood mill.

That sealed it for them and they decided to stay. He decided to get a GED and attend Linn-Benton Community College, where he was able to test out of a number of classes due to his Coast Guard and work experience, he said. He ended up with a computer degree from Oregon State University and now works in IT.

Suzette, who had been a poor student in high school, decided, after Eric graduated from LBCC, to give college a shot.

“I’d always struggled with my grades in school,” she said. “When I got to college, I found my way. I found out, whereas I didn’t do well in math in high school, in college I kept at it until I figured out what I didn’t know. I almost majored in math.”

She ended up opting for a field that required a lot of “practical math,” as Eric put it: home economics, earning a teaching credential from OSU, and has taught at Sweet Home High School since 2008.

In recent years she has also taken the lead of the school’s Josai exchange program with Josai Gakuen preparatory high school in Tokyo, Japan.

Two of their daughters, Ashley Andersen Murphy and Elizabeth Andersen, live locally. Their oldest daughter, Michelle, passed away earlier this year after an extended illness.

The senior Andersens enjoy the sea and spend a lot of their free time in the summers ocean fishing on long trips along the Oregon coast in their 30-foot North River sport fishing craft, the Suzy-Q.

Eric still gets seasick, he said, but they catch a lot of tuna and other deep sea delicacies.

“I’m throwing up and she’s not,” he said. “I’ve gotten to the point where it doesn’t bother me.”

They chuckle about the time, several summers ago, when they got checked out by a Coast Guard patrol off the Oregon Coast while they were fishing on a fishing trip with their grandson Anthony Andersen aboard.

Their experience in the Coast Guard was good, in many ways, for them, the Andersens said.

“Our job trajectories were so different,” Suzette said, “but you can get to the same place many ways. For me, I loved the structure.”

“You learn how to be self-sufficient, getting from here to there,” Eric said. “You can see the path.”

“My career was really kind of simple,” Suzette said. “Eric got to do some very fun things. You think of yeomen, they just do the paperwork. He did more than paperwork. He was my hero.”