UC Riverside Senior Tells About the Rescue of Captain Phillips from Somali Pirates in 2009

Jackie Kozich said her time in the Navy as a radar reader made her a more focused student at UCR

Jackie Kozich

Jackie Kozich on the deck of the U.S.S. Boxer

By Jeanette Marantos

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — If she’d only known, UC Riverside senior Jackie Kozich says she would have been on deck hanging over the railing to watch Navy Seals rescue merchant marine Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates in April of 2009. Instead, the young E5 operations specialist was busy at her job, keeping track of air traffic around the amphibian assault carrier the USS Boxer, unaware of the drama happening just outside, about 300 miles off the Horn of Africa.

In fact, said the Murrieta Valley High School graduate, even though their ship was assigned to patrol the seas off Somalia to protect against piracy, most of the crew found out about the kidnapping by listening to news reports or getting email queries from their family. After that, it was simply a matter of deduction. “We knew we had to be involved because of who we were and where we were at,” she said.

Their hunch was confirmed shortly thereafter when about 15 Navy Seals came aboard the ship. Their arrival wasn’t quite as dramatic as portrayed in the highly acclaimed Tom Hanks movie Captain Phillips, Kozich said. Instead of parachuting from airplanes into the dark waters below, the Seals and their piles of gear actually came aboard the Boxer by helicopter.

“They just appeared one day, and you knew they were Seals because they look so different,” she said. “They all have beards, they’re bigger, of course, and more carefree. They didn’t have to work…they just worked out, took care of their equipment in the hangar bay and ate when they wanted. But they were a really nice group. I met them when I was working out one day and they were just regular guys.”

Jackie Kozich

Jackie Kozich at UC Riverside

The Seals stayed on board for a week before the night-time rescue. Four Somali pirates had been holding Phillips captive for five days in a small covered lifeboat. When negotiations failed, the Seals captured one of the pirates and killed the other three. Phillips was rescued and taken onboard the Boxer.

Phillips stayed with the Boxer’s Captain Mark Cedrin, and at one point stepped into the bridge for photos, while Kozich was working a few floors below. In fact, she said, while she found the movie to be fairly accurate, most of the 1,500 crew members were kept far away from the action. “It was really like a floating high school,” she said, with everyone staying in their designated areas, working shifts of six hours on and six hours off. Crew members couldn’t just roam around the ship, she said, and at night, they weren’t allowed to be outside anywhere.

Kozich said there was some indication that something was going to happen the night of the rescue, because all the lights on the flight deck had been turned off.  But it all went down without her knowledge. “I was just doing my normal job, and it’s a good thing I had no idea what was going on. The movie shows the ship as being so close to the lifeboat….if I’d known we were that close, and what was happening, I totally would have gone outside to watch.”

After two nine-month tours on the Boxer, Kozich went into the Navy Reserves and then pursued her goal to get a college degree in psychology and education at UCR. She started junior college right out of high school, but was bored, and didn’t know what she wanted. She saw a poster one day that asked, “If your life was a book, would anyone want to read it?” and that got her thinking that maybe the answer to that question was no.

“I realized I wanted to do something out of the norm,” she said. “I was taking notes in the middle of my Evolution class and I just stopped writing. I went home and told my Dad, ‘I’m going to join the Navy.’ It was the greatest decision I ever made, because before I was just going to school without a purpose. Now I’ve seen something of the world and I have friends all over the country.”

UC Riverside was a perfect choice for her, she said, because it’s relatively close to home, it has the diversity she so valued in the Navy, plus the Office of Student Special Services has been a great resource for her, and for other veterans who have come back to school. “People should know they can take a break (from school) and come back,” she said. “Now I know I want to be a school psychologist; I want to change the way education is going. You learn at a higher level when you have a purpose.”

She has impressed UC Riverside Professor David Glidden, who teaches philosophy. He especially admires how Kozich overcame an injury from a motorcycle accident, that put her in a wheelchair temporarily, and how her own experience has made her an advocate for the disabled on campus.

“She is one of the most self-motivated, determined women I have ever met at UCR over the past 37 years,” Glidden said. “She is persistent, courageous, willing to endure pain and adversity, determined to succeed at her goals.  She is very capable intellectually, and she is also a free spirit, willing to take risks.  The self-determination she acquired in the Navy while serving in a war zone has carried over to her independent spirit as a student at UCR.”

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