Despite eventually earning a fourth star as second in command of the United States Coast Guard, a long career wasn’t always Adm. Charles Ray’s goal. As he prepared to hear “fair winds and following seas” after 40 years of service, the vice commandant shared his story.
“It became very apparent to me that if I was going to go to college, I was going to have to figure out how to do it,” said Ray.
“With the help of a Junior ROTC instructor, Sgt. Harold Francis Gay, Jr., — God rest his soul — he said, ‘Charlie, you can get one of these scholarships,’ and he helped me apply to everything.”
Known lovingly as “Sarge,” this mentor was a 22-year Army veteran with combat deployments to both the Korean and Vietnam War zones. He and his family made their home in a small town in Arkansas, and Sarge co-founded the Junior ROTC program that Ray joined.
Applying to everything meant all of the military academies. “I got lucky and got the Coast Guard Academy. The first time I ever saw the Coast Guard I was in it,” Ray said with a laugh.
He planned to finish his commitment to the Coast Guard and then head back to Arkansas. Ray said that he thought about becoming a marine inspector and working the Mississippi River along his hometown. He became a pilot instead.
“My dad was a Marine Corps aviator. He was in the reserves all the time I was growing up and did a couple tours of active duty when I was little. He’d go to Memphis to drill and he’d fly over our hometown. Back then, everyone knew that was my dad flying over,” Ray said. Although he loved aviation, the service time commitment that accompanied flight school was something Ray said he wasn’t sure he was ready for at 22 years old.
His first year out of the academy, he was assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter ACUSHNET (WMEC-167) as a deck watch officer in 1981. It was there that he fell in love with operations. “We did hurricanes; I was a boarding officer on a couple of drug busts and all of the amazing stuff that coasties do,” he explained.
Early on in his tour aboard the ACUSHNET, Ray witnessed a medivac and the experience left a lasting impact on him, he said. A few weeks after the incident Ray was on a dependents cruise as he watched a Coast Guard helicopter fly around the cutter for families. “I remember looking at that thinking those guys are the best in the world at what they do,” he said.
His skipper saw him eyeing the helicopter and said, “Charlie, you can do that,” he shared. That moment led Ray to put a package in for Naval Flight School. “Next thing I knew, I was in Pensacola,” he said.
After earning his wings in 1984, Ray accumulated more than 5,000 hours of flight time. Before announcing his retirement, he was the longest–serving aviator — the Coast Guard’s 25th Ancient Albatross. A humble man, Ray said he was never “super smart” or able to do it all on his own. Instead, he credits his successes to the mentors he had in his corner.
On May 24, 2018, he was sworn in as the 31st Vice Commandant for the Coast Guard.
“It’s been like that all along the way. People have helped steer me and encouraged me. That’s why I’m still here,” Ray said.
“I think the Coast Guard is much more appreciated by the nation and much more respected than when I came in … and the level of coasties that we have today is unbelievable.”
Ray isn’t leaving the Coast Guard too far behind in his rear view. He accepted a part-time position at the Coast Guard Academy working within the Loy Institute for Leadership. But before he digs into his role, he’s got big plans.
When Ray’s father retired, he asked him what it was like. His response is a phrase he plans on living by for this next chapter of his life: every day is Saturday. “We bought a camper and we’re going to hit the road. I’ve got a lot of fishing to catch up on,” he said.
His advice to the new coasties starting their journey is simple.
“Do something that you really believe in and work with people you really care about … it doesn’t get much better than that.”Read comments