Joseph Vorbach had one question as soon as he heard two Navy sailors were killed in Iraq over the weekend:
"Because I know we've got a fair number of people in the maritime arena there," the U.S. Coast Guard commander recalled thinking at the time.
The answer eventually came: Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan B. Bruckenthal, a 24-year-old father-to-be, died in Iraq that day near the Khawr Al Amaya oil terminal.
Bruckenthal became the first combat death for the Coast Guard since the Vietnam War. The damage controlman was from Smithtown, N.Y., but spent some of his teenage years in Ridgefield.
Bruckenthal, assigned to the Coast Guard Air Station in Florida's Miami-Dade County and serving his second tour of duty in Iraq, died of injuries suffered during an attack on the terminal Saturday by suicide bombers in boats. He was about a month away from returning to Florida and to his pregnant wife, according to those who knew him.
Though the Coast Guard is traditionally associated with shoreline patrols, port security and rescue missions, there are about 300 Coast Guard members serving in the Iraq war.
At the peak of the war, 1,250 guardsmen were deployed, working with the Navy to provide security.
Lt. Buddy Dye, a Coast Guard spokesman, said that since December, guardsmen have boarded more than 800 vessels and seized nearly 6,000 metric tons of oil that smugglers were attempting to transport.
"We've seized boats with unexploded weapons, illegal contraband," he said. It is a high-risk environment, but one that Coast Guard personnel are trained to work in, he said.
The motto of the Coast Guard is "Semper Paratus" - "always ready" - and guardsmen know that they may start out fighting illegal drug-running off the Florida coast but end up searching vessels in the Iraq theater.
Bruckenthal's death is a reminder that those who enlist must also be prepared to serve in active combat overseas. Of the 241,093 guardsmen who served in World War II, 574 died in combat. Seven of the 8,000 who served during the Vietnam War died in combat.
The Coast Guard is the smallest of the five military branches, with about 38,000 personnel. Its predecessor was established in 1790 and referred to as "the cutters," dealing primarily with enforcing tariff laws.
Coast Guard units were among the first to respond to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Last year, civilian oversight of the service was officially transferred from the federal Department of Transportation to the new Department of Homeland Security.
"We do take pride in being able to adjust to the needs of the nation," said Vorbach, whose fears that the Coast Guard was near that oil terminal were confirmed.
Vorbach is an assistant professor of international relations at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, where, he said, cadets are taught to live the Coast Guard's motto from day one.
"If they forget things or don't bring the right equipment or don't bring the right uniform at the right time, we make a big deal about that," he said.
The academy works to continually update its curriculum to keep pace with the changing demands of the service, he said.
Public perception doesn't necessarily keep up with the service's evolving roles.
"I think many members of the public are not fully aware of the fact that the Coast Guard does serve in war zones, and they do take casualties," said U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, R-2nd District, who sits on the Coast Guard subcommittee.
Bruckenthal's family and friends are living that reality now. "We're all trying to get through this," Bruckenthal's uncle, Steven Bruckenthal, of Millwood, N.Y., told The Associated Press. "It's been a shock, from his 83-year-old grandfather, to his mother and father, to his sister, to his wife."
Bruckenthal lived briefly in Ridgefield during his teenage years, attending the high school there and serving on the town's volunteer fire department. He left in 1995 after his sophomore year, his former high school guidance counselor told the AP.
Ed Gabbianelli, chief of the volunteer fire department, on Tuesday recalled a very polite and responsible teenager. "He'd just jump right in with everybody," Gabbianelli said. "If we got a call to go to a fire, he was right there."