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Eye in the Sky

Mar 17, 2009
by Lou Dubois, '06

’89 grad flies Coast Guard choppers to head off drug traffickers

Eighty-five miles off the Colombian coast, in the eastern Pacific Ocean, a small boat speeds through international waters headed north. Loaded with illegal narcotics like marijuana and cocaine, the boat is more than likely headed for U.S. soil, where the “runners” on board will sell the drugs for a higher premium to a buyer on the mainland.

The runners may make $10,000 each on this one mission — a typical day in the international drug trade. Unless they encounter HITRON and Flagler graduate Matt Rother.

When the U.S. Coast Guard determines one of these vessels is what they call a “go-fast” boat, they deploy their Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON), based out of Jacksonville’s Cecil Field. This specialized unit focuses on high threat drug trafficking, and their armed helicopters intercept and apprehend suspected targets.

Rother, a 1989 graduate with a double major in English and communication, is now in his 22nd year with the Coast Guard and his second year as a commander with HITRON. His main role is training pilots and gunners for counter narco-terrorism, along with leading them in homeland security initiatives, namely protecting ports, waterways and coasts. He just returned from a deployment in the Pacific, where he was trying to stop drug traffickers.

“I’ve always been driven by service to my country and to my fellow man,” Rother said. “Growing up in Oklahoma, I was definitely a militaristic child. My father was an air force pilot, so all I ever wanted to do was follow in his footsteps.”

When an office of DEA agents in Jacksonville set up a drug bust, they typically gather one pound of cocaine. That process sometimes takes upwards of a month from start to finish. During Rother’s tenure, the HITRON’s largest bust on record was 6,800 pounds of cocaine on one boat, which translated to an import value of more than $90 million.

Just this fall, they busted a boat with 3,900 lbs. of cocaine, worth a little over $50 million.

Rother didn’t grow up dreaming of the Coast Guard, but when he came to Flagler College in 1985 he quickly realized that there was more to life than combat. In his own words, he became a “humanist.” He decided he could still serve his country by enforcing laws and saving lives closer to home — all by joining the Coast Guard.

He started by entering the reserves in his junior year at Flagler. Upon completing his degree, he entered officer candidate school. When he went to become a Coast Guard pilot, people questioned his qualifications in math and science, the typical background subjects required for the job. He moved forward despite that, quickly establishing himself within his units as a talented pilot.

“I can’t understate the importance of the education I got at Flagler,” Rother said. “My time there made me a well-rounded officer with what I learned about speech and writing as an English and communications major. The most important thing you need to be a successful pilot is to be a good manager with a well-rounded skill set. I had all of that.”

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