Charleston native retires from US Coast Guard, in hangar filled with stories of survival

Life jackets which hang in the hangar of the Coast Guard facility at Charleston Executive Airport. Each holds a story of survival (Source: Live 5)
Life jackets which hang in the hangar of the Coast Guard facility at Charleston Executive Airport. Each holds a story of survival (Source: Live 5)

JOHNS ISLAND, SC (WCSC) - Friday a Charleston native retired from the U.S. Coast Guard after more than 20 years of service, some of that time spent in the Holy City.

Lt. Commander Shannon Scaff was a rescue swimmer for 10 years, based along the east coast.

In 2015 Scaff assumed his role as Chief Contingency Planning & Force Readiness for Sector Charleston.

That same year, he participated in a cause for Operation 300, a non-profit which hosts adventure camps for children who have lost a parent in the line of duty.

At Charleston's MLK swimming pool, Scaff swam for 24 hours straight in memory of four fellow Coast Guardsmen who lost their lives in a helicopter crash during a routine training flight on February 28, 2012.

Now, Lt. Commander Scaff leaves the U.S. Coast Guard filled with 24 years of memories serving our country.

"I feel so very fortunate to be finishing out my career here at home," Scaff said. "I couldn't have written a better script."

At his retirement ceremony Friday, colleagues told stories of his passion to serve, and his determination to save as many lives as possible, as a rescue swimmer.

"We all know it's inherently dangerous work that we do," Scaff said. "So coming here kind of brings me back to those guys."

Scaff's retirement was held at the US Coast Guard hangar at Charleston Executive Airport on John's Island.

Besides the patriotic symbol of the American flag which hangs overhead, more than two dozen life jackets hang on a railing in the hangar. Each holds an amazing story of survival.

"When we get out there and are able to perform a rescue and bring somebody home that's quite a memorable event for us," Scaff said. "So if we're able to, we like to take a little memento of that."

"We try to write down who the crew was, what the case was, the conditions and everything," said Chief Joey Gryzenia, a rescue swimmer at the Savannah Air Station Shop. "The amount of work we do, it puts things into perspective. So it's cool to reflect on that."

Both Scaff and Gryzenia have a handful of jackets which hang on the railing from their time as rescue swimmers.

Gryzenia said he looked up to Scaff as a mentor when he entered the program.

"First swimmer I ever met," he said. "He took me under his wings, tried to beat the crap out of me to prepare me for rescue swimmer school. Just seeing how passionate he was about what he was doing, you can't help but just get that from him."

Designated as Helicopter Rescue Swimmer #437, Scaff was first assigned to Air Station Elizabeth City, with a follow-on tour at Air Station Savannah, GA.

He participated in many air-to-sea rescues and in January 2001, with wave heights reaching in the excess of 60 feet, he voluntarily entered the water during a Nor'Easter to rescue commercial fishermen trapped on a sinking vessel. Scaff was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross due to this mission.

"There were a lot of dangerous situations I was in," Scaff said.

He describes the time where they were called for a rescue mission off the coast of Bulls Bay where a boat was sinking. The helicopter didn't carry a heat water and pump, so it would have had to go back to the John's Island station to pick it up.

"I made the decision to lower down onto the boat in case something happened," Scaff said. "We elected me to stay on the boat, and the helicopter came back to Charleston."

According to Scaff, things didn't go as well as anticipated.

"About 15 minutes into that, they were on their way back to Charleston, the boat broke up right under our feet. I wound up taking up myself and the two or three fishermen and putting them in the water with me. The helicopter eventually came back and recovered us from the water."

Those stories are some of the first that Scaff's daughter has heard about his mission.

As with any retirement, the U.S Coast Guard has its traditions involving the American flag, specifically, it's folded up and passed from the lowest rank entered to the rank retired.

For Scaff, Friday was personal because it involves his daughter Seaman Madison Scaff.

"People could say that it could be a little bit of a struggle living up to something so great, but I don't see it that way," Madison said. "I'm so proud to be his daughter and proud to be in the Coast Guard that I grew up in."

Earlier this week Madison had the opportunity to see what her dad did for several years.

Scaff surprised his daughter by organizing a helicopter ride with training ops.

"They deployed the rescue swimmer, a rescue swimmer stationed here, and another one came up and it wasn't the same one," Madison said. "They switched him out with my Dad."

Madison was also able to see her dad free fall into the water, one last time.

"It's big shoes to try and fill," she said.

"I'm just so immensely proud of Madison," Scaff said. "I cannot put into words."

Madison serves as a boat crewman at the Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat Station Umpqua River, along the Oregon coastline.

Scaff still plans to stay in the Charleston area following his retirement.

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