AST2 Bradley Mellon US Coast Guard (1975-1984)
AST2 Bradley Mellon
US Coast Guard
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WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE MILITARY?
I can’t point to any one particular influence. I can’t remember a time in my childhood where I had considered anything other than a military career.
Coming of age in the 60’s the Vietnam War was always there “in your face” every night on the evening news. I had two older brothers who enlisted during the war years, one in the Marine Corps, and the other in the Air Force. My father had enlisted in the Navy at 17 during the closing days of World War II and my maternal grandfather served stateside in the Army Air Corps during WWII. On my father’s side my grandfather served in the 29th Infantry Division during WWI and my great uncle, who is buried at Arlington, was one of the original “Devil Dogs” of the Marine Corps in WWI. Another uncle served in the Navy during the Korean War.
Growing up I had my heart set on becoming a Naval Officer and flying helicopters. After graduating High School in 1973 I attended the University of New Mexico for a little more than one year on a Navy ROTC Scholarship. During my summer Midshipman Cruise I sailed to Australia on the USS San Bernardino, a then brand new County Class LST. I had more fun during this cruise then I could possibly describe.
Upon returning to college in the fall I found myself in a dilemma. The summer cruise affecting me enormously, I was anxious to get in uniform and get on with things. I was also now questioning my choice of the Navy. As part of our training we were exposed to the other branches of the service, to include the US Coast Guard. I had never given the Coast Guard any serious consideration, but the more I looked at it the more it seemed to be the fit I was looking for. I spent a couple weeks losing sleep over the decision to “resign” my Midshipman appointment and finally bit the bullet. The day after I arrived home I was in the Recruiter’s office in Mobile, Alabama singing on the dotted line.
BRIEFLY, WHAT WAS YOUR SERVICE CAREER PATH?
While in college and involved in the Navy ROTC program I had asked to be assigned to the Marine Company. Although determined to be a Navy Officer I admired the Marine Corps and wanted to experience some of what their training experience was like. As such, I auditioned for and earned a spot on the Rifle Drill Team.
When I left college and reported aboard TRACEN Alameda in February of 1975 it seemed a natural decision to try out for OSCAR Company, the boot camp Honor Guard. So I found myself in Oscar Bravo 100 as part of the Drill Team. I had my heart set on becoming an Aviation Survival man, but was told the waiting list was a year long. So, I was given three options; stay on at Alameda and become an Assistant Drill Instructor (an option I didn’t feel a Seaman Apprentice was actually qualified for), stay on at Alameda as part of the Deck Force (an option that made the first one look better), or head back east to Alexandria, Virginia and spend a year at the Ceremonial Honor Guard. So a week after graduating boot camp I drove through the front gate of Radio Station Alexandria and found a bunk in an old wooden barracks that looked like it had been built during the Lighthouse Service days!
I spent the next ten months in the Honor Guard seeing and doing some very interesting things. I saw President Ford up close and personal. I was on the South Lawn of the White House when Emperor Hirohito made his first and last official visit to the United States and I was there at Andrews AFB when President Sadat flew home after a “secret” visit with Henry Kissinger.
After ten months I was surprised when I was called into the presence of my Division Officer and was told to go downtown for my flight physical; my orders to ASM “A” School had come in.
After a brief flurry of activity I was once again driving through the front gate, only this time it was at Navy Lakehurst where the Guard’s ASM’s went to “A” School at the Navy’s Parachute Rigger School. PR School was a blast! The highlight of which was jumping out of an old war bird of a DC-3 wearing the first parachute I had ever packed. I tacked on my Crow at “A” School and was off to my first Air Station; CGAS Miami. What can you say about Miami? Warm winters and some of the best SAR you can find in CG Aviation. While at CGAS Miami I flew in the old “Goats” – the HU-16 Albatross, and my personal favorite, the HH-52A single engine helicopter. I had the “honor” of being one of the very first Load/Drop masters in the C-131 that replaced the Albatross while the Falcon jets were being procured.
While here at Miami I was given credit for the seizure of 5 tons of marijuana from a fishing vessel. In addition to being kind of exciting, it also planted a seed that would bloom a few years later.
After two years in Miami I was offered a two year tour at Barbers Point, Hawaii. In order to satisfy the two year tour requirement I had to extend my enlistment for one additional year which wasn’t a hardship as I was still figuring I would be around the Coast Guard for awhile. Getting off an airplane in Hawaii in January, had to be a much better experience than doing the same in a place like Chicago. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere where the weather was more perfect.
The SAR wasn’t as good as it was in Miami, but there wasn’t a more beautiful place on the planet to fly. I wasn’t on the ground in Hawaii for much more than a month, however, before I was on a plane for Minneapolis and C130 Load-master School. I wasn’t all that thrilled with this training assignment as I had become a dyed-in-the-wool helicopter guy and was perfectly content earning my flight pay in the venerable old ’52. But C-130’s proved to be lot of fun. I got to see quite a bit of the Pacific that most don’t get to experience. Midway Island, Kure Atoll, Johnston Island, Kwajalein, Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Yokota, Japan, all from the ramp of the C-130.
I received credit for my first life saving incident, after spotting a civilian pilot, who had been treading water for 12 hours after she ditched her single engine Cessna while on approach to Honolulu. We plucked her out of the water with a flawless water landing and delivered her to a hospital in downtown Honolulu with barely a scratch on her. It was here that the seed planted in Miami began to bloom.
I made 2nd Class while at Barbers Point and reenlisted for another 4 year tour after serving 5 years. I had gotten the Law Enforcement bug and started looking at Coast Guard Intelligence. In January of 1980 I found myself at another front gate, this time at Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, DC to attend the Air Force Office of Special Investigations Basic Investigator’s Academy.
At the time there were fewer than 100 Coast Guard Special Agents and even among this small cadre I was a minority. The majority of the agents were Chief Petty Officers and all of them were from the deck force; I was the only air dale in the soup and a 2nd Class Petty Officer to boot. While still in the academy I was told by my soon to be senior agent that he didn’t feel I had sufficient rank to be an agent, nor did he feel that air dales belonged in investigations and he would see to it that I found myself back in uniform.
The future didn’t look too bright at this point, but I graduated and as a new agent was assigned to the Resident Agent in Charge in Baltimore, MD. The Resident Agent offices are meant for experienced investigators, but here I was fresh out of the academy working with just one other agent. Fortunately this agent was a salty Chief Boatswains Mate, named Bob Melia, who had started out driving PBR gunboats in Vietnam with the Navy before swapping uniforms. I was in good hands. We worked out of the U.S. Custom House in Baltimore and had forged a very close relationship with the Customs Patrol Officers who investigated maritime narcotics smuggling – they were a good partner! So good, in fact, that I found a wife working in their personnel division.
Naturally, the folks back in District didn’t like this “close personal relationship” I had developed with the Customs Service and threatened to transfer me away from Baltimore. A heated discussion ensued between my Commander and myself which led him to warn me to watch how I raised my voice with him or I could find myself back in uniform. I sarcastically replied “Do I get to choose my Air Station?” So once again I found myself driving up to a front gate, this time at the Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Alabama. I had come full circle – I was a mere two miles away from the recruiting office I had enlisted in.
The next two years were decisive ones. With a new wife and new step daughter I found I had to consider a paycheck for the first time in my life over the fun I was having with the Guard. There is no SAR out of Mobile to speak of, but it is the training center for CG Aviation, so I soon found myself on the Standards Board for the HH52 helicopter and I was “giving back” by training new Flight Mechanics. The day came when this enlistment was up and in January of 1984 I walked out of the front gate for the last time to chase a career in civilian law enforcement.
FROM YOUR ENTIRE SERVICE CAREER WHAT PARTICULAR MEMORY STANDS OUT?
This is a difficult question. I had many experiences that stand out from others. But in an esoteric sense I think I would have to pick my first “solo” flight as a Search & Rescue Air crewman in the HH52A Helicopter. Training was stressful but this was real!
Three of us were flying out to a large double masted schooner to hoist a young woman who had struck her head on the prop of the schooner’s launch. She was unconscious and bleeding and on the deck of a vessel that would be difficult to hoist from.
I had flown with both pilots many times before on training flights and had the utmost confidence in them. The Aircraft Commander was a former Army helicopter pilot with many hours of combat time in Vietnam behind him. I trusted his judgment, but here we were hovering off the port side of the schooner appraising the situation. The two pilots are discussing options and strategy and I’m quietly listening and waiting for my instructions when the Aircraft Commander says; “Mellon, What do you think?” I was caught off guard at first, then the realization set in – here I was, a 21 year old 3rd Class Petty Officer who was being asked for my input before the pilot decided on a course of action. It dawned on me that I wasn’t just part of the “crew” – in this helicopter there were 3 of us. Our lives were interdependent on one another and the success of this mission was dependent upon all three of us. I wasn’t just the crew – I was part of the “team” that was going to decide how to conduct the hoist. That left an impression on a very impressionable young mind.
For the rest of my career, and even now, I still remember that no matter where a person sits on the “chain-of-command” their opinion matters. Sadly, less than 18 months later both of those pilots died, along with the Flight Mechanic (who was my primary instructor), in a mid air collision with a civilian helicopter while returning to Opa-Locka from a training flight. This was a sad wasteful loss of life that was caused by a distracted tower controller.
OF THE MEDALS, AWARDS AND QUALIFICATION BADGES OR DEVICES YOU RECEIVED, WHAT IS THE MOST MEANINGFUL TO YOU AND WHY?
Getting my “wings” was a significant event but I think the most meaningful award was my second Commandant’s Letter of Commendation. I received this one after being credited for saving the life of a civilian pilot who ditched her Cessna at sunset while on approach to Honolulu Airport. We searched well into the night with no luck.
At first light we went back out for what we were afraid was going to be a fruitless search. But with a literal Hollywood finish, while on our last leg before calling off the search, I spotted her splashing water about two miles offshore. Even after directing the pilot until she was “off the nose” of the helicopter he still couldn’t see her! He thought I was hallucinating until he got close enough to pick her out of the white caps.
He never understood how I saw her in the first place. Not sure I ever understood either. She ditched and abandoned her plane with no survival gear whatsoever; no PFD, no flare, no signaling device, nothing. She spent 12 hours treading water in an area known for its sharks.
After a flawless water landing I pulled her into the cabin and the first thing she says is: “What the Hell took you so long?” We also received the coveted “Winged S” from Sikorsky aircraft for being members of a life saving crew in a Sikorsky aircraft.
WHICH INDIVIDUAL PERSON FROM YOUR SERVICE STANDS OUT AS THE ONE WHO HAD THE BIGGEST IMPACT ON YOU AND WHY?
Without a doubt it was Chief Warrant Officer Bob Melia. Bob was an old school Bos’n Mate who cut his teeth in the Navy driving PBR gunboats on the Mekong in Vietnam. Later, when the war was over for us he played a key role in clearing Haiphong Harbor of the mines that were laid there during the war.
Bob was very old school. He may have to show respect for the rank, but the man had to earn his respect. Bob left the Navy and “graduated” to the Coast Guard and found his way to Coast Guard Intelligence as a Special Agent. That’s where I met him fresh out of the Academy and my assignment to the now 2-man office in Baltimore.
To the rest of CGI, I was a young, 2nd Class Airdale who didn’t belong. To Bob I was a Special Agent who carried the exact same badge he did and that was all that mattered to him. He had my respect and loyalty about ten minutes after I met him. About 2 hours later I had his respect; which is probably the biggest honor I received while in the Guard.
As a Special Agent I had entered the world of Captains and Admirals and Bob taught me all he knew of how to navigate those mine filled waters. When Bob was promoted to CWO he promoted himself out of the Special Agent position and he landed at the Marine Safety Office in New Orleans. A few years later I would find myself in New Orleans as a Special Agent with the U.S. Customs Service and I had the pleasure of once again working with Bob on a regular basis.
Bob later became the Godfather to my son, Christopher and oversaw his christening. Only Bob could get the Catholic Church to agree to baptize my son on the ramp of the Coast Guard Air Station in New Orleans using the tail rotor hub from an HH65 helicopter as a baptismal font. Bob was a fine officer, an outstanding Chief and a faithful and loyal friend. We lost him way too soon just a few years ago. Rest Well, Buddy!
CAN YOU RECOUNT A PARTICULAR INCIDENT FROM YOUR SERVICE THAT WAS FUNNY AT THE TIME AND STILL MAKES YOU LAUGH?
When I entered Coast Guard Aviation it was a fantasy world to me. I had always been fascinated with helicopters and I considered myself one of the luckiest guys around to actually be flying as a crew member in one.
At first I couldn’t get enough of it, so much so that I forged a friendship with a National Guard pilot whose helicopters were housed in the hangar next to ours at the Opa-Locka, Florida airport. On occasion I would go for a “joyride” with him sitting in the “hell-hole” position of the UH-1 Hueys they flew. We would fly down into the Everglades at dusk skimming the tree tops and just having too good of a time.
On one flight we were returning on one of the blackest nights I can remember. We were hugging the coast line near the Turkey Point nuclear power plant when I noticed what looked like a small “signal” fire on the beach. I looked offshore and in the darkness I could make out the shadow of a large fishing vessel running with its lights out. The 70’s were the “Miami Vice” era and seeing a boat with its lights out was a red flag. As I looked closer I saw a smaller boat running from the fishing vessel to shore, also with its lights out. I asked the pilot if he wanted to go catch some drug smugglers. He replied that was our ball and he flew me back to the Air Station. So here I am, a young 3rd Class Petty Officer, jumping out of an Army helicopter and walking into our Operations Center to explain to the duty officer what I just saw. He tells me to stand fast while he puts in a call to RCC – the Rescue Coordination Center (as it used to be known). He repeats my story to the Duty Officer there, a Commander. He hands the phone to me and says the Commander wants to talk to me. I repeat my story to the Commander, answer a few questions I think were related to my sobriety and then he tells me to hand the phone back to my Duty Officer. After a few more minutes of conversation between the two of them before he hangs up the phone, the Lieutenant gives me a long thoughtful look and tells me; “They are diverting a C-130 from St. Pete, they are getting the DILIGENCE underway, we are calling the Florida Marine Patrol and we are launching the Ready 52 with you on board to go see what there is to see. RCC says if we don’t find anything YOU are buying the gas!” All of a sudden even I was questioning what I saw. Talk about a long flight. We get back to Turkey Point and the Florida Marine Patrol had already taken the shore crew into custody. A forty-two footer had already boarded the Fishing Vessel ATO and found what remained of the marijuana cargo still in its hold. All told, 5 tons of marijuana and a fishing vessel were seized and 5 people arrested. Not a bad finish to a night that started as a joyride with the Army.
The next morning, while in the Survival Shop packing a parachute and listening to the local radio, they report last night’s drug bust as a major news event. Sadly, our District PIO got a bit carried away and gave me the credit, BY NAME over the radio. He did everything but reveal my room number in the barracks. A few minutes later I’m called to the XO’s Office where he explains to me that no good deed EVER goes unpunished. Because of the press release the District had received a few death threats made against me, so as a reward for my actions I was confined to the base for 5 days for my own safety. Shortly after, however, I did receive my first Commandant’s Letter of Commendation for the 5 ton seizure – plus I was relieved of the responsibility of the fuel bill.
WHAT PROFESSION DID YOU FOLLOW AFTER THE SERVICE AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW? IF CURRENTLY SERVING, WHAT IS YOUR CURRENT JOB?
I left the Coast Guard in 1984 and put on the uniform of a Slidell, Louisiana Police Officer. I have to admit that this was a dream job as well. I enjoyed this job so much, I hated long weekends. But the pay was lousy. A little shy of 3 years as a Police Officer I had to find a better paycheck. The relationships I made with the Customs Service while assigned to CGI bore fruit at this point and I was hired on by the U.S. Customs Service in New Orleans as a Special Agent. I spent the next 9 years in New Orleans investigating drug smuggling by private aircraft, drug smuggling via commercial vessels and Commercial Fraud.
In 1995, I transferred to El Centro, CA where I rounded out my experience by investigating drug smuggling across the Mexican Border. In 2002, I became a Supervisory Special Agent about a year before the Homeland Security Act did away with the Customs Service and created U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) by merging the Customs Office of Investigations with the Immigration & Naturalization Service investigators. I spent my last years before retirement supervising the Human Trafficking Group that targeted criminal organizations profiting in the smuggling of aliens from Mexico into the United States.
I retired in mid 2007 comfortably as a GS-14 and began volunteering with the American Red Cross in their Disaster Services Program. In just the first two years with them I was deployed to the Southern California Wildfires and two hurricanes in Louisiana. All told it was a fruitful 30 year career.
In some respects I feel like I didn’t leave the Coast Guard as my 9 years with them counted towards my retirement. I can say without reservation that had it not been for my time in the Coast Guard I would not have had the career I had, and it has finally come full circle. The week after Christmas I found myself at the offices of the San Diego Coast Guard Sector as my wife, son and I finished our paperwork to sign on as volunteers with the Coast Guard Auxiliary. So, I get to put the uniform back on. My adventure with the Coast Guard hasn’t ended just yet!
WHAT MILITARY ASSOCIATIONS ARE YOU A MEMBER OF, IF ANY? WHAT SPECIFIC BENEFITS DO YOU DERIVE FROM YOUR MEMBERSHIPS?
Having the good fortune to comfortably retire at a relatively young age (52) I was faced with the enviable problem of how to fill my days! I have been volunteering with the American Red Cross beginning on my first day of retirement. Working with them in the Disaster Services Program has been very rewarding, but waiting for disasters to strike isn’t the best way to occupy your time.
It seems the older I get the more I appreciate and reminisce over my days in uniform with the Coast Guard. It seemed a natural progression to find my way to the Coast Guard Auxiliary. So in late December of 2010 I, along with my wife and son, we “enlisted” in the Coast Guard Auxiliary in San Diego.
As I write this we are still waiting for the background process to work its way through the pipeline so we haven’t gotten past the front door as yet. Hopefully, in the near future, I’m looking forward to opening a recruiting program here in California’s Imperial Valley.
As previously stated I have the good fortune of retiring comfortably on a Government pension. I guess I haven’t gotten old enough to feel that what I get paid each month has been “deserved.” I still feel obliged to do something to earn my paycheck. Through the Red Cross and now the CG Auxiliary I think I feel like I’m earning my keep.
HOW HAS MILITARY SERVICE INFLUENCED THE WAY YOU HAVE APPROACHED YOUR LIFE AND CAREER?
My 9 years in the Coast Guard was most definitely the foundation that I built my career on. What I learned about Public Service I learned from the Coast Guard and throughout the rest of my career I worked very hard to bring to work the ethic and determination that was taught to me. The idea that it was not merely a paycheck ever left me and that what I did was serving a cause much larger and much more important than ‘I’ as an individual. As a supervisor what I learned in the Coast Guard served me very well. I learned so much from the good Officers and Chiefs I had the honor to serve with, but maybe even more importantly, I learned so much more from the bad Officers and Chiefs I had the misfortune of serving with.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR THOSE THAT ARE STILL SERVING?
Don’t wait until 20 years after you get out of the Guard to realize the amazing adventure you are having right now. The time you are spending right now has the potential to become the foundation that you build the rest of your life on. Take advantage of every opportunity, but NEVER, NEVER forget who it is you are serving. There is no sacrifice in Public Service – only the privilege of being able to serve.
IN WHAT WAYS HAS TOGETHERWESERVED.COM HELPED YOU MAINTAIN A BOND WITH YOUR SERVICE AND THOSE YOU SERVED WITH?
It is true. There is no such thing as an EX-COASTIE. By jumping into this website I have been able to link back up with old shipmates I served with and once again, for a brief while, I get to be 22 years old again! Once you put on the uniform you become part of a family that stays with you long after you’ve put the uniform away. Togetherweserved.com serves as a good forum for family reunions.