Most Americans learn about the military reaction to disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Sept. 11 and The Deepwater Horizon oil spill from websites and media outlets. But P.J. Capelotti experienced them first-hand. Capelotti, associate professor of anthropology at Penn State Abington, stood on the unsteady decks of U.S. Coast Guard vessels in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mexico and painstakingly recorded the experiences of these first responders to be shared with future generations.
Capelotti recently retired with the rank of master chief petty officer in the Coast Guard Reserve. He also received the Meritorious Service Medal for being “at the forefront of the Coast Guard’s efforts to document the service’s most important operations during times of incredible national significance.” But for Capelotti, the highlight of his 24-year military career was witnessing the bravery and dedication of Coast Guard personnel during times of crisis.
“All of these experiences afforded me intense insights and appreciation into the character of Americans during times of maximum stress and change,” he said. “During Deepwater Horizon, I was charged with overseeing the well- being of hundreds of Coast Guard personnel, which was both the greatest challenge and highest honor of my career.”
Capelotti’s military service included three years of recalls to active duty to document the Coast Guard’s responses to Sept. 11, operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, hurricanes Rita and Ike, and the Haitian earthquake. He traveled as far as Bahrain to personally conduct more than 200 oral history interviews. He led groups that collected another 300 such interviews and in the process earned three Meritorious Team Commendations.
In addition, Capelotti participated in an archaeological survey on board a U.S. Navy nuclear research submarine, and wrote or edited three books on the history of the Coast Guard. Two of these -- "Rogue Wave: The U.S. Coast Guard on and after 9/11" and "Life and Death on the Greenland Patrol, 1942" -- were awarded the Best Book of the Year from the Foundation for Coast Guard History. Another edited volume, "The Whaling Expedition of the Ulysses, 1937-38," has just been published by the University Press of Florida.
He is currently completing his 16th scholarly book, "Shipwreck at Cape Flora: The Arctic Expeditions of Benjamin Leigh Smith, 1871-1882," to be published in 2013.