Ty Hughes was on patrol in the Gulf of Mexico when the crew spotted flames and black smoke billowing from a fishing trawler nearby. Hughes, then a petty officer first class in the U.S. Coast Guard, assembled his team to climb on board and fight the fire.
The panicked crew on board the trawler was swiftly moved to the Coast Guard Cutter Northland, and Hughes and his team began pumping water from the gulf onto the flames. Within minutes, they had extinguished the blaze, saving both the entire crew and the ship itself.
“You think about your safety and the safety of those around you. Then you try to collect yourself and your team to stay focused to do the job at hand that you’ve been trained to do,” Hughes said of that day more than 20 years ago. “Does your adrenaline run? Do you get excited? Absolutely. But at some point, you have to stay focused because you’re trying to save somebody else’s life.”
Hughes’ actions that day earned him an Achievement Medal, one of more than 20 he accumulated throughout his 25 years of service in the Coast Guard. He served from 1982 to 2007 and came to Metra shortly after, working as an engineer since 2010. More than 250 men and women from all branches of the military work at Metra and we’re proud to honor them this Veterans Day.
Hughes joined the Coast Guard when he was 18. After being part of the ROTC program at his high school for four years, he knew he wanted to join some branch of the military and it was the humanitarian services carried out by the Coast Guard that piqued his interest.
His first assignment out of bootcamp was on the Coast Guard Cutter Rush in the straits of Alaska. On one memorable patrol, Hughes and his team jumped aboard a boat that was on fire only to discover that the owner had intentionally set the fire and was trying to sink his own ship.
“The boat sank, and all the contraband rose to the top,” Hughes recalled.
From there he worked on Yerba Buena Island in the San Francisco Bay, where he learned his engineering skills. His next assignment took him to Detroit to be part of an aids to navigation team responsible for maintaining and repairing lighthouses and other structures. He returned to the seas on the Northland where he worked on a search and rescue and first responder team.
In addition to saving the fishing trawler, Hughes helped build an orphanage in Haiti during his time aboard the Northland, another Achievement Medal-winning effort.
Hughes got to see much of the world – South America, Cuba, Colombia, Trinidad – that he wouldn’t have seen otherwise. He also got to learn how to adapt to other people’s personalities in very tight quarters. Cutter assignments had dozens of service men and women on one boat for months at a time, some sharing a room with 30 people depending on their rank. They ate well and trained constantly, he remembered. Communication with home was sparse during that time, with phone calls being made only after getting special permission.
Fifteen years into his military career, Hughes felt Chicago calling him home. That call, partnered with his desire to heighten the awareness of the Coast Guard, led him to join the service’s recruiting team in 1997. He wasted no time showing his commitment, earning a citation from the Armed Forces Council of Chicago for being an outstanding recruiter in 1998.
Female and minority recruiting for the Coast Guard was at an all-time low when Hughes took on the assignment (hovering as low as 9 percent). He had created a strategic plan for increasing recruitment that included expanding to three offices instead of one and using a nine-person team to reach those who might not have otherwise heard about the Coast Guard. By 2007, Hughes had increased female and minority recruiting to 32 percent.
The key was to tell the truth, Hughes said. Instead of selling the idea of the military, he focused on finding out what recruits were seeking in life and then determining if their goals clicked with what the Coast Guard could offer.
“When you tell a young man or woman what their lifestyle is actually going to be like and what they can achieve in a certain amount of time, you give them hope,” Hughes said. “It’s about their vision. You sit down and talk to them about what they want and see if they can achieve that in any branch of service.”
When Hughes retired from the Coast Guard in 2007, he knew he wanted to work for Metra, ideally as an engineer. He was able to join the agency in 2008, first as a trainman, then as an engineer. He still uses the same focus and dedication that he did in the military, and the engine room on a locomotive is reminiscent of those on the cutters he once called home.
He’s usually in a locomotive working on Veterans Day, but that doesn’t mean the days goes by unnoticed. Hughes talks to the veterans he knows and takes time to consider what their sacrifices have meant.
“You celebrate Veteran’s Day for the men and women who served before you and those who will come after you,” Hughes said. “Our country is a free country and without the people who have served, we would not be able to enjoy the lucrative things that we do.”