Phoenix Hanna, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer, died recently in a California surfing accident. Hanna was a third-generation Coastguardsman, his father said, and his son’s death marks “the first time since 1967 that there hasn’t been a Hanna on active duty in the military.” 

Both Hanna’s father and grandfather also served in the Coast Guard, Paul Hanna told Task & Purpose. Hanna, 29, was surfing June 18 off Coast Guard Air Station Ventura, California, when he fell, his father said. Paul said the local medical examiner’s office told him that his son broke his neck in the fall.

“He was an outstanding Coast Guard rescue swimmer,” Paul said. “He was full of life. This is a tragic thing. The family, we tend to be a little selfish, but he is in a better place. It’s just hard because this isn’t the way it’s supposed to happen. Kids aren’t supposed to go before you.”

The Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office has ruled that Hanna’s death was an accident caused by blunt force trauma to the base of his skull and terminal drowning, the office told Task & Purpose on Thursday.

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The commissioning ceremony for Coast Guard Air Station Ventura, which was originally scheduled for June 18, was postponed due to Hanna’s death,  said Lt. SondraKay Kneen, a Coast Guard spokeswoman.

Hanna enlisted in the Coast Guard in July 2012, Kneen told Task & Purpose. His awards include the Armed Forces Service Medal, the Department of Homeland Security Outstanding Unit Award, two Coast Guard Achievement Medals, the Army Achievement Medal, the Coast Guard Unit Commendation Ribbon, the Coast Guard Meritorious Team Commendation Ribbon, four Coast Guard Commandant Letter of Commendation Ribbons, the Coast Guard “E” Ribbon, two National Defense Service Medals,  four Humanitarian Service Medals, the Coast Guard Overseas Service Ribbon, the Coast Guard Sea Service Ribbon, and four Coast Guard Good Conduct Medals.

“Phoenix was known and very well respected by and large throughout this relatively small community of USCG Helicopter Rescue Swimmers, and helicopter aircrews, said Rick McElrath, president of the Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Association. His friends will tell you that he was always up, always ready to do what was needed in all aspects of his job.”

Hanna had recently been assigned to Coast Guard Air Station Ventura and was a critical part of a unit being stood up there, involved with life support equipment, rescue swimmer training, and always ready for duty, McElrath said.

“In many ways he will leave an empty space that will be difficult to fill,” McElrath said.

Hanna began his Coast Guard career at Port Angeles Washington, where he served as a fireman on the Coast Guard Cutter Active who stood watches and performed maintenance in the cutter’s engine room, his father said.

“Always looking for a challenge, he started hanging out with rescue swimmers from Air Station Port Angeles and decided he wanted to be one of them,” Paul Hanna said.

The Phoenix spent nearly nine months training for the infamously difficult Aviation Survival Technician school in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, Paul Hanna said. He was one of just six people out of an initial class of 24 to graduate, becoming one of the youngest rescue swimmers in the Coast Guard’s history at 19.

“Known by many throughout the Coast Guard as the kid who was always smiling and full of life, he was an avid surfer and all-around athlete that loved his craft so much that he went out of his way to teach survival skills to youth and adults throughout the communities he served,” Paul Hanna said.

“A third-generation career Coast Guardsman, he loved the organization that literally watched him grow up into an outstanding son, brother, uncle, shipmate, and all-around great guy,” Paul Hanna said. “His love of family, dedication to his profession, and compassion for helping others, make him the human we all strive to emulate.”

UPDATE: 06/27/2024; this story has been updated with comments from Rick McElrath, president of the Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Association.

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