07/24/12 — Mount Olive native earns Coast Guard command

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Mount Olive native earns Coast Guard command

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 24, 2012 1:46 PM

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Mount Olive native Commander William E. "Bill" Sasser Jr., left, is congratulated by Capt. Erik Langenbacher, right, during a change-of-command ceremony at Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco. Capt. John Prince, center, the 11th Coast Guard District chief of staff, presided over the July 11 ceremony.

MOUNT OLIVE -- When Billy Sasser of Mount Olive was in high school, his mother, Susie, remembers getting a note from a teacher telling her that her son likely wouldn't amount to much.

The note came to mind recently as she watched her son, now Commander William Sasser, take command of the Coast Guard Station in San Francisco.

After a distinguished 22-year career in the Coast Guard, Sasser has proved that teacher's opinion shortsighted .

"I'd like to take these papers and say, "See what this boy has done?' He was a boy in high school. He did his thing. I always knew, and I think (husband) Gene did, too, Mount Olive was not exciting enough for him.

"He has done really well for himself," his mother said after returning home attending the ceremony. 'We are very proud of him and all that he has done. He did it himself. We gave him the foundation and he took it and went on. I am pretty sure he will go a little further.

Sasser's new command includes four MH-65 Dolphin helicopters and 125 personnel assigned to the unit that conducts search and rescue, law enforcement, homeland security, and maritime environmental protection missions throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Air station personnel also periodically make up aviation detachments aboard Coast Guard cutters that deploy worldwide.

He reports to San Francisco from his previous assignment as executive officer of Air Station Los Angeles.

"For Commander Bill Sasser, today is the beginning of what will undoubtedly be the most challenging, and I hope rewarding tour of duty in his career to date, commanding officer of this fine unit," said the officer presiding over the change of command, Capt. John Prince, the 11th Coast Guard District's chief of staff.

His mother recalls her son as a teenager "kind of aggravated" her about joining the military.

"Finally, he said one day, 'Mama, will you sign for me to go into the Coast Guard?' I said, 'Yes, I will.' I said, 'Get in the car and I will take you down there.' He was 17. I thought it was the right choice. I was against the Marines. I was against the Army. I was for the Air Force, Navy or Coast Guard."

More than two decades later, she watched proudly as her son took the reins of command.

The ceremony was "amazing," she said. And she expects to see her son in future ceremonies.

"It was very professional, very impressive. Everything was done right on time and right in order. It is just something I never thought that I would see, but I am sure that I am going to have another one. I think he probably will. That is my opinion.

His father was unable to attend due to work on the family turkey farm.

"Lord yes, I am proud of him. He has done wonderful," his father said.

His father remembered when his son was stationed in Mobile, Ala., and took part in rescue missions following Hurricane Katrina, where he was a helicopter pilot. The night the storm hit the Gulf Coast was Gene Sasser's birthday.

"My birthday came on the 30th and I remember I was a little bit upset because everyone was here except Bill, but he was in Mobile. That night, he picked up 30 people and saved their lives. That week, he had 160 people he was credited with saving."

Knowing what his son had done, he said, was better than any birthday gift he could have received.

The younger Sasser began his career as a Coast Guard aviator in 1994 and is recipient of two prestigious aviation awards.

In 2002, while on an exchange program with the United Kingdom's Royal Air Force, Sasser became one of only two Coast Guard officers to receive the Royal Air Force Cross, which was awarded by Queen Elizabeth herself during a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

The honor was in recognition of his duties as aircraft commander during a night rescue of five mariners from a coastal freighter on fire with volatile cargo. He was also honored as the recipient of the 2003 Vodafone/Daily Express Life Savers Award and the 2004 Pride of Britain Award for the category of "Beyond the Call of Duty."

Additionally, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for rescuing 160 people from the floodwaters of Miss. and Ala. coasts following Hurricane Katrina. His other medals include the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, two Coast Guard Commendation Medals, and the Basic Training Honor Graduate Ribbon.

Sasser has said that while he was the commander of rescue operations, his co-pilot and three crew members also deserve credit for their work with him during the operations.

A 1986 graduate of Southern Wayne High School, Sasser earned a bachelor of arts degree in justice and public policy from North Carolina Wesleyan College, a master's degree in organizational management from the University of Phoenix and a master's degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the Naval Command and Staff at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

He has more than 3,800 military rotary wing flight hours and has served as an instructor pilot and flight examiner for the MH-65C helicopters.

In addition to his search and rescue missions, Sasser has served on a variety of Coast Guard missions, including law enforcement and marine environmental protection.

He is married to the former Cindy Strickland of Grantham. They have four children, Camber, 17, Hayden, 14, Darcy, 12 and Liam, 11.