The Coast Guard is the smallest and most unsung of the five armed services in the United States. But its function is just as important now -- and maybe even more so -- as it was when it was founded in 1790 by then Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. To sum up the function of the Coast Guard as "guarding the coast" doesn't paint the full picture. The men and women of the Guard are charged with much more than that.

The 47,000 members of the Coast Guard initially started out as customs law enforcement officials. Their duties were expanded just a few years later to include their main role as the keepers of vigilance along the nation's coastlines. That tradition holds true today with more than 360 ports and 95,000 miles (152,887 kilometers) of coastlines under the Guard's collective watchful eye [source: Coast Guard Foundation]. This vigilance allows for safe passage for both military and civilian ships. Every cruise ship, cargo barge and fishing boat has the Coast Guard to thank for the ability to safely earn a living at sea, the Great Lakes or interior waterways.

Additionally, if any of these vessels encounters an emergency at sea, it's the Coast Guard that will be on the scene performing search and rescue operations. Every year the armed service saves more than 5,000 lives and recovers $2.5 billion of property that would have otherwise been on the ocean's floor.

The Coast Guard also responds to more than 23,000 oil and hazardous waste spills each year, yet its role in environmental protection goes largely unnoticed [source: Coast Guard Foundation]. You also may not realize that it's the Coast Guard that sends out ice breaker ships to keep frozen waterways safely passable and open for commerce. In fact, each year the ice breakers make possible more than $62 million in trade for the Great Lakes alone. Finally, the Coast Guard works in concert with law enforcement agencies to help prevent drug smuggling, confiscating more than $2 billion per year in illegal contraband.

The Coast Guard, like all of the armed services, is accounted for within the military budget of the United States government. But because of budget constraints and legalities, many quality of life and educational programs can't be paid for with tax payer dollars. Enter the Coast Guard Foundation. This civilian nonprofit works with private and corporate donors to help "enhance the education, welfare and morale" of Coast Guard members and their families. We'll talk about how they do this on the following pages.