Everything was in place. Petty Officer 2nd Class Hanyu Wang was set to start information systems A-school in 2019. Her husband, MK2 Hanhui Wang, was gearing up to look after their four-month-old daughter, Veiya, while stationed at MSST Seattle. Because Mr. Wang couldn’t feasibly look after two children, they decided that it would be a neat opportunity for their then three-year-old son, William, to spend time with his grandmother in China and learn about his native culture.
Tickets were booked. Flights were arranged. And William arrived in China. He was only going to stay for a six-month visit while his mother finished up A-school. But then the unexpected happened: the pandemic hit. Countries issued stay-at-home orders and enforced travel restrictions to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. As the news unfolded, the Wangs were half-way across the world in Seattle, hoping to see their son beyond a screen.
“FaceTime was the only way I could see him,” said Hanyu Wang. “I was so desperate.”
Months ticked by. The world continued to shelter-in-place. No one knew when it would be safe to travel again or when the pandemic would come to an end. Over FaceTime, the Wangs watched their son grow. William celebrated his third birthday, then his fourth, then his fifth. Though he was born in the U.S., he began to lose his English since he spoke with his grandparents only in Mandarin.
By late 2020, when vaccine rollouts were underway, it seemed as if there was finally light at the end of the tunnel. Bringing William home finally seemed within reach. But even as travel restrictions slowly relaxed, an issue arose: How would William travel to Seattle? His grandmother’s age and poor health made long flights a challenge. Meanwhile, his grandfather’s position as a university professor left him no time to take off.
Relatively new to the Coast Guard, the Wangs were also reluctant to take time off to travel all the way to China. It wasn’t until Hanyu Wang heard her new supervisor Chief Warrant Officer Jennifer Thompson address her unit that she felt inclined to open up and explain the situation.
“Hanyu came into my office a week after I started at [Electronics Systems Support Detachment Seattle]. I had just given a whole spiel about how, ‘I care about people and I care about you.’ It sounds canned, but I really meant it,” Thompson said. “That is when Hanyu told me about her son and how she hasn’t seen him for three years. When she shut the door, I immediately cried because my son is William’s age, and I couldn’t imagine not seeing him during those early years when your child still wants to hug you.”
Thompson made a promise to Wang then and there. She said that she would bring him back, and immediately started making calls. “I don’t know about international policy or travel, but I thought, ‘We are going to do this.’”
As she reached out to different organizations for help, Thompson mentioned that Wang’s resilience and tenacity inspired her to keep pushing forward. Separation from her son did not affect Wang’s performance. She racked up impressive accolades and awards, including the coveted Enlisted Person of the Year Award for Base Seattle. Although Wang missed her son terribly, she gave her all to the service.
Other members of the Coast Guard caught wind of Wang’s story and wanted to get help. They joined forces with Thompson and together reached out to various agencies to find a travel companion for a minor. “Mrs. Thompson didn’t give up,” said Wang. “She kept on looking for options for me and eventually found service through Air China. I couldn’t have been happier.”
The group was on pins and needles until William was safely on his plane. “I cried a whole lot when that plane took off,” Thompson said. “It made it real.”
William landed at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Sept. 13. Taller and shyer than the last time he was in the states, William greeted his mother with a warm embrace. “For three years, I have been waiting to hug and kiss him,” Wang said. “I cannot thank the service enough for what they did for me and my family.”
After their tear-filled homecoming, the Wangs departed LAX to return home to Seattle. There, they were greeted by an excited group of Coast Guard members wrote his name in English and Chinese on poster boards to make him feel welcome. From there, both members took time off enjoy some much-deserved time with their son. But getting William home was just half the battle. In the coming weeks, he will face a new school, routine, language, and culture to acclimate to. The Coast Guard, though, will be there every step of the way to ensure William is happy and thriving in his home in Seattle.
Wang’s chief, Chief Petty Officer Matthew Cole, has been one of the many members supporting the family. He solicited funds from both the Chief Warrant Officer’s Association and the Chief Petty Officer’s Association, raising nearly $2,000 to ensure the family would not take on a large financial burden with the return of their son. He ensured Wang had time off to make proper preparations for the arrival, such as setting up William’s new room. He took care of airport transportation for the family so they wouldn’t have to drive after a long flight. His family also took care of their dog while they were away in Los Angeles. As Base Seattle’s Ombudsman, Cole’s wife, Courtney Cole, stepped in to help the Wang family with school selection, connect them with community resources, and educate them on services available through the Coast Guard’s Work Life Office. Throughout the entire process, she continues to be a much-needed support where Wang’s supervisors could not be. “Courtney knocked it out of the park,” said Thompson. “And [Chief] Cole has given her a super flexible schedule to get adjusted to their new family dynamic. We made a fantastic team.”
“They showed me that I could have a family outside of my own little family,” Wang concluded. “The Coast Guard is well known for taking care of each other, and I am so happy to have my Coast Guard family and my own little family all together in one place now.”