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  • Courtesy photo -

    U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Jayme L. Reed was photographed with her mother, Nashua native Gail Kopka Reed, when Jayme was named the USCG's Enlisted Person of the Year at her base near Seattle in April. Reed will be honored next week in Washington, D.C.
  • Courtesy photo -

    (info to come)
  • Courtesy photo -

    Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Jayme Reed, third from right, was photographed with other members of the Maritime Force Protection Unit when she was honored in April. From left are Lt. Commander Joseph Gaskill; Yeoman 3rd Class Stacy Pagozalski; Commander Thomas Sullivan; Reed; Chief Heatlh Services Technician Garrick Hill; and Master Chief Operations Specialist Penny Koons.
Saturday, May 5, 2012

Coast Guard honor made even more special through family ties

Dean Shalhoup

Jayme Reed is a woman of few words, especially when it comes to talking about herself.

She’d much rather a conversation revolve around her family – the maternal side of which has deep Nashua roots – and one member in particular, her uncle Steve Kopka, who everyone calls Sam.

Beyond being family, Sam and Jayme share an extra-special bond: the Coast Guard. Sam, his family said, nearly burst with pride that mid-April day he learned Jayme had been named the 2011 Coast Guard Enlisted Person of the Year, requirements for which include phrases such as “sustained, exceptional standards of proficiency and conduct” and “role models whom all Coast Guard personnel strive to emulate.”

“My uncle was the inspiration for me to join the Coast Guard,” Reed, 30, said from Bangor, Wash., where she’s stationed with the Maritime Force Protection Unit.

Eight years in, Petty Officer 2nd Class Reed is a health services technician, which represents yet another connection to her uncle Sam.

While stationed in Hawaii not long after he joined the Coast Guard, Kopka was barely past 20 when a vehicle he was in tumbled over a cliff, leaving him partially paralyzed. Although Reed was an infant at the time, the accident would motivate her years later not only to enlist in the Coast Guard, but also to study health services, including clinical work and physical therapy.

“Knowing what my uncle went through, I decided I wanted to help other injured servicemen and women,” Reed said.

That desire led her to apply for a six-month training and internship course at Fort Sam Houston, which is associated with the Wounded Warrior program.

“There were about 50 of us in the program,” Reed said.

The military hospital at Fort Sam Houston is a destination for many wounded soldiers returning to the States for recovery and rehab, she said.

The course and its associated internships give students hands-on physical therapy and health care training. Reed’s class graduated in November.

Next week, Sam’s and Jayme’s intertwining personal and professional lives will come full circle. Although hobbled by the old accident injuries and needing a cane to get around, Kopka will travel to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to help celebrate Reed’s honor, the pinnacle of which will come Friday when he steps forward to pin the Coast Guard Enlisted Person of the Year medal on his niece’s uniform.

Leading up to the ceremony, members of the Reed and Kopka families will join other guests for tours of the U.S. Capitol and the White House, said Reed’s mother, Gail Kopka Reed.

“It’s going to be quite an event,” said Gail Reed, a Nashua native and one of several well-known Kopka siblings.

Serving their country runs in the family: Gail Reed and her husband, Jim, are Air Force veterans. Gail Reed, who recently retired from a 33-year career with the U.S. Postal Service, laughs about how she was almost tricked into joining the Air Force in the first place.

“My friend Denise was enlisting, and eventually talked me into joining, too,” Gail Reed said. “When it came time, I went, but Denise stayed home and got married.”

Recent health problems will prevent Jim Reed from making the trip, but the family has arranged to have the ceremony recorded. Gail Reed said they’d looked into setting up a live video feed, such as Skype, but were unsuccessful.

Also anxiously awaiting his copy of the video will be family patriarch Edmund J. Kopka, who still lives in the family home at Broad and Sullivan streets long recognized for its proximity to Dairy Queen.

“He’s doing quite well,” his daughter said. “Like the rest of us, he’s really proud of Jayme. He can’t wait to get the recording.”

Despite leading a super-active, high-achieving life, Jayme Reed said she always makes time to write regularly to her grandfather.

“It’s kind of hard to talk on the phone, but I send him cards all the time,” she said.

About a month before she was named national Enlisted Person of the Year, Reed won honors for the Coast Guard’s Northwest Pacific District. The announcement was delayed, however, and officials ended up announcing Reed’s regional and national honors at the same time.

Receiving two accolades at once is a lot to process for anyone, never mind someone as reserved as Jayme.

“You’ll never meet anyone quite as humble as she is,” her mom said. “She’s working hard on what to say at the ceremony. … She’s kind of overwhelmed by all the praise and attention.”

Jayme Reed said she was told she’d been nominated for the district honor, but had “no idea at all” she’d be chosen.

“When I asked my supervisor why he nominated me, he said it was my dedication to the job and the volunteering I do,” she said.

Prodded to describe some of her endeavors, she cited efforts on behalf of food banks, raising funds for charities and organizing clothing drives for local shelters for women and homeless people.

A look at biographical information the Coast Guard provided in making the announcement confirms that yes, Jayme Reed is once again being humble.

“Reed was recognized for her high degree of clinical knowledge, her ability to liaison with other Department of Defense medical professionals and her flawless management of clinic operations,” according to the announcement.

On top of her regular duties, Reed also served as unit health promotion coordinator, providing fitness and nutrition guidance to unit personnel.

Her off-duty hours were full, as well: She coached and mentored her fellow soldiers at Bangor’s Naval Base Kitsap Fitness Center.

It appears Reed also understated the extent of her charity work, which take her well beyond the Seattle area. She has run marathons across the nation on behalf of causes that include cancer research and the Seattle Children’s Hospital. She spent “countless hours,” the announcement says, helping a blind athlete train for swimming and distance running competitions, then ran as the athlete’s guide partner in three half-marathons.

That Sam Kopka didn’t have children, Gail Reed said, led to uncle and niece forming a special bond.

“Jayme is very special to Sam,” she said. “They’re very close. He’s so proud of her, especially at times like this.”

Reading Reed’s biography, it’s easy to see why.

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-6443 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com.