It was evening on the mess deck of the Coast Guard Cutter Kimball (WMSL 756), as Lt. Cmdr. Donald Stiker, the cutter’s engineer officer, looked sternly out at the crew and guests gathered before him. Standing to his side was the Kimball’s commanding officer, Capt. Holly Harrison, and the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard (MCPOGG) Jason Vanderhaden.
“I hate doing this in front of the captain, the MCPOGG, our honored guests, but I gotta draw the line,” said Stiker. “You know we are getting ready to do a permanent cutterman’s ceremony tomorrow and as much as it pains me; this really pains me, one of us wants to go aviation.”
Laughter rippled through the mess deck as Stiker turned to Fireman Lonnie Taber, standing next to him.
“So from this point on, Fireman Taber, you are dead to me, and because of that, master chief had talked to me about a brand new uniform so I’m giving you that,” said Stiker as he handed Taber a folded set of flight coveralls. “And you’re on the next flight out of here.”
The mess deck erupted into applause that Taber, a prior service Army National Guardsman and Iraq War veteran, was leaving that night aboard an Air Station Barbers Point MH-65 Dolphin helicopter for Coast Guard Aviation Maintenance Technician A-School to continue his long aviation service to the nation.
Taber is from Claremore, Oklahoma, a small town about 30-minutes north of Tulsa. His father owned a heavy equipment business and was well known as being a wiz with machinery. Taber credits much of his mechanical knowledge to the lessons he learned working with his father throughout his childhood.
“When people need help fixing a vehicle or a piece of machinery, they come to my father,” said Taber. “He taught me many things, including instilling in me a strong work ethic. I attribute the man I am today primarily to him.”
After graduating from Sequouah High School and attending two years of college at Rogers State University, Taber decided he wanted to pursue his interest in aviation. An opportunity arose within the Army National Guard in 2007.
Taber enlisted and became a 15T, otherwise known as a UH-60 Blackhawk Repairer. After a year of training he returned to Tulsa where he was stationed with B. Co. 2/285th AVN.
“I was deployed to Tallil, Iraq with my entire unit in September 2009,” said Taber. “Our mission was combined between troop transportation from base to base around the area of responsibility, as well as different air assault missions to acquire vital intel and high value target acquisition.”
Taber remained in Iraq until October, 2010, when he returned to Oklahoma and continued his National Guard career. During that time he participated in a number of missions including training flights, aerial firefighting, rescue hoist, and disaster relief missions.
His unit would often respond to tornado disasters including a time his crew flew then Governor Mary Falon to Norman, Ok, after a large tornado destroyed much of the city. During his career in the Army National Guard Taber racked up over 1200 flight hours on the UH-60 airframe and achieved the rank of Sergeant.
“I got out the first time in 2015 in order to pursue the idea of taking over my father’s business, however, after about a year of working with him in the capacity it became clear to me that that was not the path I wanted to go down so I joined again in 2016 after almost exactly one year.”
Taber signed on for a year long contract and realized that working both a civilian job and being in the Army National Guard was not what he wanted to do for the rest of his life and got out again in 2017.
He worked two jobs between 2017 to 2018 in the oil and natural gas industry but decided what he really wanted to do was serve in the active duty military and went to work considering all the branches.
“So after some research into Coast Guard Aviation and the roles and responsibilities involved, not to mention I would likely be stationed on the coast as opposed to other branches, I settled with the Coast Guard, went to a recruiter and started the process.”
He said he had to make the difficult decision of starting over again as an E-3 due to him being out of the service for so long.
To Taber Coast Guard basic training was a different but familiar experience to him. He said the main difference was how Army boot camp was much more physical while the Coast Guard was more mental.
After graduating Taber was stationed aboard the Kimball, one of the Coast Guard’s new national security cutters.
“I never really considered that I would wind up on a major cutter that would take me where it did, that being said, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience,” said Taber. “I found myself doing things I never imagined I would and probably never will again.”
Taber worked as a member of the Engineering Main Propulsion Division during his time on the Kimball. His duties included assisting the Machinery Technicians with maintenance on three diesel generators, two main diesel propulsion engines, and the gas-turbine main propulsion engine.
He also was responsible for standing security watch, monitoring oil and waste tank levels, cleaning bilges, and was in charge of tool control ensuring the divisions equipment was properly tracked and stocked.
The Kimball’s command knew Taber wanted to go aviation and he was allowed to visit Air Station Barber Point while the cutter was in-port. It was while he was there he put his name on the Aviation Maintenance Technician (AMT) A-school list.
When Taber first joined the Coast Guard the AMT school list was closed because there were so many people wanting to join the rate. With his heart set on going aviation he decided to put his name on the Avionics Electrical Technician (AET) list instead.
While working at the air station a number of AMT’s and AET’s learned of his story and spoke with Senior Chief Petty Officer Shannon Brugh, an aviation survival technician, of Taber’s aviation maintenance background and how he really wanted to go AMT.
After speaking with the AMT Rating Force Master Chief, Brugh informed Taber of the steps he would need to make the switch from the AET list to the AMT one. Brugh, along with Capt. Harrison and Lt. Cmdr. Striker, worked with Taber to put his Rating Determination Package together and for Higher Tenure Waiver.
Due to his prior service, Taber was approaching the deadline for advancement before being separated. His command aboard the Kimball worked to have him fast tracked to A-School through a waiver.
“I was aware that the attempt was being made to make something like this happen for me, but I was not aware until that last moment that it had actually happened,” said Taber. “It felt as though all my hard work on the Kimball, and all the time I had put in during my Coast Guard and Army careers was being recognized.”
His command decided to surprise Taber with the news about AMT A-School while the cutter was conducting helicopter drills with Air Station Barbers Point off Hawaii and arranged for him to fly with the air crew back to Oahu.
“While it was hard work to get this done for Fireman Taber and it was hard to see him leave, the Coast Guard gained a great aviation petty officer,” said Stiker. “His hard work and dedication helped get Kimball fully operational and I am extremely happy he was able to fly away to bigger and better things!”
That night on the Kimball’s mess deck was a fulfillment of his lifetime’s passion for aviation. When he flew away from the Kimball that evening he said he would soon be doing what he loved once again.
“Flying away from the Kimball on the MH-65 was once again, at the same time, a familiar, but vastly different experience,” said Taber. “Being onboard a Helo is nothing new to me, but flying out over the open ocean, watching that cutter fade away into the horizon, with land miles and miles away, was strange and awesome. It’s kind of amazing to see that huge cutter that I had been living and working on for so long, get smaller and smaller as we flew away towards Oahu.”