Legacy Continues In Army
by U.S. Army Master Sgt. Michel Sauret
March 26, 2020
Every time he straps on the leather band of his watch in the
morning, Phillip Brashear remembers his father.
famous saying is, ‘It’s not a sin to get knocked down. It’s a sin to
stay down,’” Brashear said.
Those words are engraved on the
back of a Swiss limited-edition wristwatch, surrounding the iconic
image of a Mark V diver suit helmet. The watch was manufactured in
honor of Carl Brashear, the first African-American master diver in
U.S. Navy’s history who lost his leg during a tragic accident on a
mission off the coast of Spain in 1966.
Various photographs depict Carl Brashear’s physical recovery after losing his leg in a diver accident in 1966. Brashear is the first African-American master diver in U.S. Navy’s history whose life story about overcoming physical and racial adversity was featured in the Hollywood film “Men of Honor” starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by Master Sgt. Michel Sauret)
Two airplanes had collided, dropping a payload that included
three nuclear warheads. One of them fell into the Atlantic Ocean.
Carl Brashear was called to dive and recover the bomb, but during
the mission a towline was pulled so tight that it ripped off a pole,
dragging it across the deck with so much tension that it cut the
bottom part of his leg, nearly ripping it off. Back in the United
States, doctors decided to amputate the leg below the knee.
“My father is an American legend,” said Brashear. “He was the first
amputee to return to active-duty service in one of the most
challenging jobs in the Navy.”
His life story was depicted in the Hollywood movie
“Men of Honor” which starred Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro.
“My father overcame five barriers in his lifetime. He overcame
racism. My father overcame poverty, being a poor sharecropper’s son.
He overcame illiteracy. He lost the bottom part of his leg and was
physically disabled. … He overcame his alcoholism, and in 1979
retired with honors,” Brashear said.
Today, Phillip Brashear
is the command chief warrant officer for the 80th Training Command,
which is responsible for military courses that train thousands of
Army Reserve Soldiers around the country.
service members like his father and the Tuskegee Airmen for the
opportunities that men and women of every skin color and background
“He opened the door for many others to come
behind him,” he said.
Brashear has more than 38 years of
military service, starting in the U.S. Navy Reserve, then the U.S.
Army National Guard and now with the U.S. Army Reserve. He spent
most of that time flying helicopters.
“I used to tease my dad
all the time. … I scored higher than you on the ASVAB test,” he
said, referring to the aptitude test used to assign military jobs.
“I get to be a helicopter pilot. I go up, not down. My daddy said,
‘Aw, get the heck out of my face. … Remember son, there’s always
divers looking for pilots. There’s never pilots looking for divers.”
That banter between father and son came close to becoming a dark
premonition for Phillip in 2006 while deployed to Iraq. A flash
flood washed away part of a convoy, and Brashear was involved in
recovering the bodies.
“That’s one of the hardest things I’ve
ever done in my life was to get out of that helicopter in a combat
operation to retrieve dead Americans, bring them back to safety so
their families could have closure,” he said.
bodies were not Navy divers in the middle of the ocean, Brashear
recovered Marines whose lives were taken by water.
of his Iraq tour offered no relief. He was with the Virginia Army
National Guard at the time, responsible for flying personnel and
material across Iraqi deserts under constant gunfire and the threat
of improvised explosive attacks. Even at night, he could see the
barrage of tracer rounds piercing the sky like lasers.
remember the heat. Constant heat. Like a blow dryer in your face. I
remember the constant thirst. The constant fear from getting in that
helicopter in a combat zone,” Brashear said.
Then one day, he
came home from deployment on a Red Cross message. His father was
ill. However, Brasher didn’t think it was severe, and during his
visit home, Phillip believed his father would recover. He thought
his dad was invincible. This was the man who had endured a year of
recovery wearing a 300-pound suit after losing a leg to become a
master diver. As a master chief petty officer later in his career,
Sailors scurried out of the way whenever this legend walked onto a
“He’s gonna be fine,” the son thought, so he walked
into his father’s hospital room complaining about Iraq.
like, Dad, man. I’m getting shot at. The food’s bad. It sucks over
there. It’s hot,” he recalled.
“Son, what are you complaining
about?” his father asked.
The calm in the old man’s voice
took him by surprise. Something in his father’s presence caused the
younger Brashear to pause.
“He was on his deathbed. He would
have traded places with me in a heartbeat … to go fly helicopters in
harm’s way, but I wouldn’t have traded places with him,” Brashear
“A few days after, he died in my arms. … His body just
gave up. He’d been through so much. He just couldn’t suffer any
more. So he – he left us,” he said.
After his deployment,
Brashear decided to retire from the Army, but while going through
his father’s belongings, he remembered his father’s fighting words.
“It’s not a sin to get knocked down…”
He returned to
service in the U.S. Army Reserve, which he said offered him
opportunities even the National Guard couldn’t have given him,
including the command-level position he holds now. He continued to
fly helicopters for about a decade. Over the course of his career,
he’s flown the UH-1 “Huey” – recognized as the Vietnam-era
helicopter – the UH-60 Black Hawk and two different models of the
Then, in 2014, Brashear faced adversity of his
own. During his annual flight physical, he was diagnosed with atrial
fibrillation, a heart arrhythmia that took him off flight status.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world to be denied your job
because of something medical. That’s like someone taking away your
livelihood. So, just like my dad, I said, ‘I’m not going to let this
stop me. I’m going to get back up and get my job back,’” Brashear
He received a procedure known as cardioversion, a
medical treatment that restores normal heart rhythm through electric
shocks. As it turns out, his heart doctor, Michael Spooner, also
treated Brashear’s father in the last 10 years of his life. The
A-Fib kept Brashear off flight status for a year, but he continued
his recovery until he passed his physical and returned to flying.
Now, Brashear is among the few dozen command chiefs in the U.S.
Army Reserve. He serves as the top technical expert for his command
and invests his time mentoring warrant officers and Soldiers
wherever he goes.
With all four of his children grown,
Brashear lives with his wife, Sandra, outside Richmond, Virginia.
They have three daughters – Tia, Megan, Melanie – and a son, Tyler,
who is an ROTC cadet studying biology at North Carolina A&T
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Phillip Brashear (right), a U.S. Army Reserve command chief warrant officer for the 80th Training Command, poses with his son Tyler Brashear, an ROTC cadet at North Carolina A&T State University, while holding a photo of his father in Greensboro, North Carolina, Jan. 16, 2020. Phillip Brashear is a helicopter pilot with combat experience and the son of Carl Brashear, the first African-American master diver in U.S. Navy’s history who lost his leg during a tragic accident on a diver mission off the coast of Spain in 1966. Carl Brashear’s life story about overcoming physical and racial adversity was featured in the Hollywood film “Men of Honor” starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro. Phillip Brashear has more than 38 years of military service between the U.S. Navy Reserve, the U.S. Army National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserve. He spent the majority of his Army career as a helicopter pilot with deployments to Bosnia and Iraq. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by Master Sgt. Michel Sauret)
“It’s just a great legacy to have my father, who
in the Navy was a great legend. Then myself a combat veteran in the
Army. And now my son, who is going to be following our footsteps
with leadership and service to our country,” he said.
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