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Clarence K. Neely (Military Issue 2021)


My father was always my inspiration. He was a state trooper and had visions of me joining the marines, but it was not something that I wanted to do. The recruiters informed me that I would be stripped down as a person and built back up to a marine. I knew right away that was not for me. I was a lifeguard at the area pool and the ocean in Atlantic City, New Jersey. One day I encountered an experience as I watched a gentleman drowning and the lifeguards were unable to get to him. A rescue helicopter flew over him, and I witness a guy jump out of the helicopter, latched the drowning guy to him, and pulled him up to safety, and with amazement, I stated: "That’s What I Want to Do.” I came home and told my father what I witnessed with the helicopter and how they came and rescued this drowning man, and I wasn't sure who they were, but I like to do that job. My dad replied, “That’s the Coast Guard.” He took me to the Coast Guard recruiter in Gloucester, New Jersey, and while talking, a helicopter landed in the padding area. I was excited and told the recruiter, “That’s the stuff I want to do right there!” He stated if you score high enough on the test, I can get you in that program, and away we went.

The Coast Guard is a small organization predominately for the Caucasian culture. When I first entered and had the recruiter's meeting on the base, it was two brothers at the gate, and my father asked them to direct us to the Coast Guard Station. They looked over at me and stated, “Are you sure you want to join the Coast Guard?” My response was, “YEAH!” Both brothers were negative about the branch, but I never let their response place fear in my heart. I went in and did my thing anyway. My father always told me not to pay attention to the negative stuff, there is always something that has a negative element, so I didn't. When I left to go to boot camp, our house was getting painted; there was a gentleman who asked me if I was going on vacation; I said, “No, I’m not, I’m going to the COAST GUARD.” He looked at me and said, “I spent twenty years in the Coast Guard; I enjoyed it so much I retired.” My dad looked over at me and said, “See!” I took it as a sign to let me know I’d be okay.

I joined the Coast Guard on May 3, 1976, in Camden, New Jersey. My first duty station was on a ship, not a helicopter squadron; I was on a cutter. I learned how to perform boat-handling and driving skills, so I became interested in that. Later in my career, I became a “Boat Cockston.” Also known as a “Boat Captain.” We performed search and rescue, and that is when my career began in this field. When I entered, I was not afraid of the swimming lesson since my dad taught me how to maneuver in the water, so I was already a great swimmer, and I was always the one winning.

The reactions that I received let me know that they have never seen a brother (African American) swim the way I did. I was challenged many times and even told a black guy would never be a Boat Captain, and I never listened to them and became the first black Boat Captain as an E-3; I was a Merchant Seamen at the time of my promotion.

There was this one captain I’ll never forget, a big Caucasian guy, he talked down to me and told me I would never be anything, but I never let his words discourage my ability to make it. Finally, he realized my strength and ability to win and took me under his wing. He’s taught me so much and developed me into the leader that I am today.

He trained me to navigate through the Coast Guard and ignore all the negativity from his peers. This white man helped me get through each obstacle successfully while training in the Coast Guard. He always told me to stay in operations and not become a cook because it was a commonplace that all the black people held in the branch. It was bizarre to see an officer who had this particular position while being black. I saw one black officer four years into my career in the Coast Guard. A good friend of mine joined the station, another brother, and he was able to swim well just like me; therefore, we began showing out. We had our duty section and started showing the white guys that we black men could do the same as they did.

My good friend Joey and I had placed a $100 bet and a keg of beer to swim across little creek lake, which was a good thousand yards. “WE BEAT ALL OF THEM.” This was my claim to fame!

Once I completed that tour, I entered a helicopter unit at the air station in Atlantic City New Jersey. I began flying on helicopters as an observer; I performed a few rescue missions with those guys and gained the title; Executive Petty Officer; this was my first command position. It was my very first time entering a prominent leadership position; I was second in command. My team performed search and rescue on the boats. I did these duties in the summer and the winter; I flew in the helicopter. In each area, we did many life-saving rescues, and I remember a lot of touching stories.

One story that I remember was at Wildwind Park. There was a colossal waterslide that many people would get on, and it broke, causing people to slide off and enter right into the ocean. We were on duty for rescue, and the helicopter pilot had to land on the beach; this caused us to swim out into the water to rescue them; that was a memorable, exciting time. So right after that tour, I came to Virginia Beach to Little Creek Coast Guard