This story was originally posted in January on Naval History and Heritage Command site. It was written by Phillip Brashear the son of master diver Carl Brashear.
Throughout mankind’s history, there have been stories of individuals who have overcome extremely difficult odds in order to showcase the true strength of the human spirit with amazing results.
Carl Maxie Brashear is one of those individuals who demonstrated unyielding tenacity to overcome his circumstances only to achieve his ultimate goal of becoming a United States Navy Master Diver.
My father is a true example of the American dream in the fact that whoever you are, or wherever you come from, anyone can achieve their dreams if they work hard and believe in themselves. I often say my father overcame his “Five Hurdles” to prove to the world that dreams do come true. My father overcame racism, poverty, illiteracy, physical disability, and alcoholism during his lifetime only to pass away with no malice in his heart and a feeling of accomplishment for his work.
Carl Brashear joined the military in 1948, only a few years after President Truman ruled that the military would not deter anyone from joining based on race. Even though President Truman officially desegregated the military, racism was a continued practice in society and the military. My father could only be an officer’s valet or some other menial-task person in the Navy. He joined with a limited education also. He was a seventeen year-old with an equivalent of an eighth-grade education at best. Being the son of a poor share-cropping family in rural Kentucky, his socio-economic class was an extra detriment to his success. With these obstacles already against him he still continued to press in the Navy.
One day he witnessed a diving exercise off the coast of Florida and instantly his desire was to become a Navy Diver. Of course this was unheard of during his day because the Navy would never send a minority to the Navy’s prestigious diving training. My father was not defeated by this apparent attitude of exclusion and wrote dozens of requests to enter diver training. One remarkable day, he did receive approval to attend the training, but before he was off to fulfill his dream, reality hit him in the face when he failed to qualify academically and had to wait to apply again. During his waiting period he studied and excelled in his knowledge in preparation of returning to the course. When he got the opportunity for a second chance, he was able to complete the course standards and was awarded the designation of Navy Diver despite going through a course of instruction that included death threats, isolation, name-calling and fistfights. He was the first of his race to attain that goal, but the struggles continued.
Carl Brashear was an accomplished Navy Diver in the late 1950’s and made a name for himself as his career continued (Note: As he proved his skills as a diver, the respect fellow divers started to show him opened the door to creating bonds of friendship and inclusion with his peer group and the officers appointed over him), but in 1966, an incident occurred that would again alter my dad’s life and challenge his dreams.
Two Air Force planes were practicing in-flight refueling procedures off the coast of Spain when a mid-air collision destroyed both aircraft. One of the aircraft stored nuclear weapons onboard and one of the weapons was lost at sea. My father was part of the official Navy diving operations team sent to recover the lost warhead. During shipboard operations a cable snapped and ripped across the deck of the salvage ship, severing my father’s left leg, nearly killing him on the spot.
My father would endure his massive wound, numerous blood transfusions, ship transfer in rough seas and a helicopter trip just to get him stabilized for a trip home to Virginia. It was there at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital where he decided to get the leg amputated below the knee and continue his career.
Again my father was greeted with negative attitudes and disbelief, but with strength and patience he proved once again that a belief in something greater than himself would conquer any obstacle. This was the pivotal moment that would make him an American military hero and give him world fame as he regained his Navy diving privileges as an amputee. Rising to the top of his goal as a Master Diver in the Navy in 1970 was the icing on the cake.
As the rest of my father career winded down, the constant stress of putting his family second, coupled with the many obstacles he overcame with sheer determination proved to expose a weakness in his character. He began drinking heavily and at one point drove his car off of the pier at Little Creek Naval Base in Virginia Beach. After this incident, he entered a Navy substance abuse course for alcoholism and completed it shortly before his retirement in 1979.
In November of 2000, he was honored as the subject of a major Hollywood movie, “Men of Honor” starring Cuba Gooding Jr. in the leading role as Carl Brashear. Also in the movie was Robert DeNiro, Charlize Theron, Hal Holbrook and a host of other Hollywood notables.
My father has many notable tributes and honors attached to his name like the USNS Carl Brashear (TAKE-7), the Carl Brashear Conference Center at Joint Base Little Creek/Ft. Story, a special edition luxury watch from Switzerland, and a newly dedicated Veterans Center in Radcliff, Kentucky. These and many other honors recognize the remarkable achievement of a man who proved to the world that with a grain of faith, mountains can be moved!!!
Editor’s Note: Phillip Brashear is a former Chief Warrant Officer 4 and Blackhawk Maintenance Test Pilot in the Virginia Army National Guard. He is a combat veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom from January 2006 through February 2007, and as part of Stabilization Force Ten in Bosnia-Herzegovina from October 2001 through April 2002.