Minding the Helm|
An unlikely career in the U.S. Coast Guard
Kevin P. Gilheany
University of North Texas Press, 2019, 304 pp, HC, $24.95
January 24th, 1983 Kevin Gilheany enlisted in the Coast Guard at 19 years old. His passion for the sea and what he thought of as the Coast Guard's humanitarian mission overrode a few statistical facts that were against him. He could not swim. He was "out of shape, and liked to drink a bit too much". None of this dissuaded Gilheany.
Gilheany grew up in a tenement in Manhattan, His father mostly absent, and with relatively little money, his mother tried her best to keep her three children entertained. Some of the formative excursions were to the South Street Seaport and the Coast Guard Academy's sailing ship Eagle. From city kid to chief warrant officer Gilheany's determination is evident. He writes "The value of accomplishments is relative and personal. It's not necessary to make millions or to be the leader of the free world in order to gain satisfaction and have a positive impact on the world." It is with this insight and anecdotal narrative that Gilheany writes an interesting and entertaining memoir of his life in the Coast Guard.
Minding the Helm is a straightforward read. Gilheany is frank about his accomplishments and missteps. For me, one of his most impressive feats was a very personal one. Early in his career he had an epiphany that in order to succeed, he would have to quit drinking. Of course this epiphany came after a serious bender, and he had to be placed on report. Gilheany writes this would be "my thirteenth alcohol related incident in only a year and a half in the Coast Guard…The desire to fulfill my dream was only slightly stronger than my desire to be drunk…I knew I couldn't do both. He quit drinking and never drank again.
Throughout his career, Gilheany was involved in some high profile missions, helping to recover debris from the Space Challenger tragedy and leading armed boarding's of ships after 9/11. He also eventually gets to sail on the Eagle, the ship he had so admired as a child. His stories are at times funny. A chapter about his stint on the Wedge, a 75 ft pusher tug or tower, in New Orleans with an unusual Senior Chief is entitled Hooligan Navy, enough said.
There are also some tragedies and Gilheany writes with introspection about the gravity of these situations. A thread that follows Minding the Helm from beginning to end is Gilheany's drive to understand problems and solve them. One of the reasons he rises in the ranks and receives awards is his attention to detail, and an effort not to make the same mistake again. This also led to what he thought of as a heart-attack. It was actually stress, but he realized that he was a control junkie, and he had some soul searching to do.
During his career, Gilheany also attended night school, graduating from the University of the State of New York. He gets married and has a daughter. Another of his dreams from childhood was to learn the bagpipes. He is able to accomplish this as well. He not only learns how to play, but is a founder of the U.S. Coast Guard Pipe Band. He played in the French Quarter after 9/11 and donated all the funds. Before and after retirement he and his fellow pipers played for memorial services and in parades. They received a plaque commemorating the founding of the USCG Pipe Band and it is on display in the walk of Coast Guard History in Grand Haven, Michigan.
This is a very well written memoir, personal, and honest. Although it is about life in the Coast Guard it is also Gilheany's philosophy of his life that is so inspiring. His value system; his grit to move forward during setbacks, and his belief in his dream that a city kid who couldn't swim could make it on the water.