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One man's dream opens doors for others

| Monday, March 12, 2001

The Master Chief Petty Officer steps up to the podium. He wears a dark gray suit over a white collared shirt with a red tie. His outfit resembles that of a businessman, but his kind, aging face and gentle but determined attitude suggest a grandfather.

That is the man everyone sees. That is Master Diver Carl Brashear.

Brashear was in the Mon Valley area last week, visiting California University of Pennsylvania on March 8 to speak about his life in the U.S. Navy.

Last November, 20th Century Fox and State Street Pictures released 'Men of Honor,' a movie based on Brashear's life. Cuba Gooding Jr. played Brashear, while Robert DeNiro co-starred.

The movie tells the story of the first black Master Diver in the U.S. Navy and the hardships he faced in order to obtain that position. That diver was Brashear.

Brashear was born in 1931 to sharecropping parents in Sonora, Ky. He quit grade school after seventh grade to work on his parent's farm. His family was poor but close-knit and happy, and their faith in God helped them.

'I think our faith was what kept us going,' Brashear said. 'It played a big part.'

Brashear joined the Navy in February 1948. After basic training he worked at Officer's Mess at Experimental Squadron One in Key West, Fla. At the time, most black men in the Navy held the undistinguished position of a steward. These men cooked, served meals and cleaned officer's living quarters. In addition to the difficulties of daily life in the Navy, Brashear dealt with segregation and a popular ideology of the time: racism. At that time, people permitted blacks to frequent only one street in all of Key West.

Brashear left the Steward's Branch and became a beachmaster. While in that position he discovered his dream job, being a deep-sea diver, 'the best thing since sliced bread,' according to Brashear.

He set out to get that job, asking for the chance to do it again and again, but people kept 'losing' his special requests and his forwarding letter to be enrolled in the deep-sea diving program.

One of the personnel officers told him 'the Navy (doesn't) have any colored deep-sea divers.' Well, Brashear thought, the navy is about to have a black deep-sea diver. Eighteen months later the diving school finally accepted him.

The people at the diving school did not exactly welcome him with open arms, though.

Diving school requires building mental, physical, and psychological endurance to prepare students for deep-sea diving, but Brashear had additional problems, again, due to his skin tone.

'We're going to drown you today (expletive deleted)!' and 'We don't want any (expletive deleted) divers!' were a couple of the greetings he found on his bunk at the school. People also sabotaged his diving projects. Once he saved a fellow student's life, but instead of receiving a Navy Marine Corps Medal, an undeserving student received it.

'But I didn't let it bother me,' Brashear said, 'my goal was to be a diver, not get a medal.'

Brashear stayed in the program and learned that trusting his fellow divers was necessary for survival.

'I developed faith in my fellow man regardless of race, creed, or color,' he said.

Brashear succeeded at the diving school, and attempted to go from Salvage Diver to Master Diver.

In 1960 Brashear requested admission to a first class diving school to prep for Master Diver, but he was not prepared for the difficult academic tests involved. He admitted his failure and went back to the fleet, but did not give up his dream. He studied for the next few years until he went back, and when he did gained admission, he graduated third in his class of seventeen.

In 1966, Brashear was injured in a freak accident that occurred while on a mission to retrieve a nuclear bomb from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. A pipe smashed into his leg below the knee. A helicopter flew Brashear off the boat, but ran out of gas, so by the time Brashear arrived in the hospital he had lost so much blood and was in such poor condition the doctor thought he was dead.

Brashear stayed in the hospital for two months, suffering through four guillotine-type amputation surgeries before doctors left him with a stump below his knee.

After surviving that procedure, he again had to fight, this time to continue his career, which the Navy wanted him to give up.

'The naval officers said it was the end of my career,' Brashear said. 'In their opinion I would no longer be able to perform my duties as a Chief Petty Officer and as a deep-sea diver. I could not accept those words because I was driven and determined to reach my goal.'

It took a year, but Brashear triumphed once again and became the Navy's first amputee diver.

He maintains a sense of humor about the accident; 'On the positive side, I use less foot powder than anybody else.'

In June 1970, Brashear fulfilled his dream of becoming a Master Diver, the highest position for diving in the Navy. He retired in 1979.

Today, though he inspires people throughout the country, he says his strength comes from others.

Brashear's father was his role model. He also gives credit to God for playing a major role in his life.

'God played a big part. There's no way I could have changed the Navy's mind. God chose me to pave the way for black people to follow; he opened the doors for me,' Brashear said.

Brashear never held a grudge toward the Navy for the hardships he endured there.

'I love the Navy. Loved it when I joined and love it today. I love the professionalism, I love serving on ships, and I love the brotherhood and togetherness,' he said.

Fellow naval officers attended Brashear's visit to Cal U, including Karen Nickens, a Navy counselor in Washington, Pa. She called Brashear 'a hero in my book.

'He's outstanding for the adversity he went through. I teach my son every day: There's nothing in the world you can't do if you put your mind to it.'

Brashear is living proof of that.

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