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PONCE DE LEON – Army pilot Phillip Brashear says he never tires of sharing his father’s trailblazing legacy of courage and perseverance. Brashear’s father, Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate (MDV) Carl Brashear, was not only the first African American to attend and graduate diving school; he was also the first POC master diver in U.S. Navy history and the first amputee to re-qualify as a Navy diver after losing his leg in 1966 while on a mission to recover a hydrogen bomb that had been lost off the coast of Spain. His story was immortalized in “Men of Honor,” a film released in 2000 starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Brashear.
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Phillip Brashear was given a new way to connect to his father’s legacy on Saturday with a special diving expedition at Vortex Spring in Ponce de Leon. While Phillip Brashear, a Chief Warrant Officer 5 with the Army’s 80th Training Command, has a distinguished 40-year military career of his own, he was never a diver – until Saturday.
Vortex Spring, along with Scuba Educators International, History of Diving Museum in Islamorada, Man in the Sea Museum in Panama City, and Classic Diving, LLC, worked together to bring Brashear to the spring for his first dive.
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Greg Davis of Classic Diving, LLC says the project was not only a way to offer Brashear a symbolic walk in his father’s diving footsteps, but also a way to help promote Carl Brashear’s legacy and bolster resources for future divers.
“Vortex was selected as the site because we had already been here before and knew we were coming back,” said Davis. “It was because we had a connection to the Navy that we knew how to get a hold of Phillip. My business partner is a Navy diver who knew him through the Carl Brashear Foundation, which is involved in the Diver of the Year award in his father’s name. The problem is, the foundation is only known by people in the Navy. We thought if we brought [Phillip Brashear] out here, got him introduced to hundreds of more divers, then maybe the foundation can do better things by being able to raise more money. A hundred percent of what the foundation takes in goes back out [to schools and in scholarships]. They not only represent the history of diving; they invest in its future.”
Philip Brashear’s dive was slated to be performed in a Mark V diving helmet like the one used by his father for the majority of his career. According to the Navy, the Mark V was used by Navy divers from 1916 until 1984, when it was replaced with newer, lightweight gear.
“The U.S. Navy Mark V is the most coveted and recognized diving helmet in the world,” Christopher S. Dutton of the Museum of Diving History wrote. “It embodies helmeted diving with its bold look, functional design and long-standing history in American diving … Navy Dive Master Carl Brashear used a Mark V during his career. Today, it symbolizes not only an important segment in diving history, but also stands as one of the most important technologies in the history of the world.”
When it came time for the dive, the Mark V wouldn’t fit over Phillip Brashear’s head, but in the spirit of his father’s determination to adapt and overcome, he completed the dive with a Kirby Morgan helmet, a style Carl Brashear also used, albeit later in his career and with less frequency.
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85-year-old Sam Hayslip of Panama City was among the hundreds of divers who received instruction from Carl Brashear. He was also one of several Navy veterans who traveled to Vortex Spring on Saturday to witness the symbolic dive and revisit the classic Mark V gear.
“I met [Carl Brashear] in Washington D.C. at the diving school,” said Hayslip, noting that Phillip Brashear bears a strong resemblance to his father. “When I saw [Phillip], it was like going back in time. What I learned back then [under Carl’s instruction] led to a long career.” Hayslip later brought that knowledge to the Bay County Sheriff’s Office, assisting BCSO and other local agencies as a search and rescue diver.
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Brashear says it is meaningful to see the far-reaching and lasting nature of his father’s influence.
“Without men like my father, many of us wouldn’t be where we are today,” he said. “My father overcame five barriers in his lifetime: racism, poverty, illiteracy, physical disability, and alcoholism. He fought and won those battles against the odds and retired with honors in 1979. He was well known for saying, ‘It’s not a sin to get knocked down. It’s a sin to stay down.’ To be part of his legacy as his son and to further it through the Carl Brashear Foundation is an honor, but to have the opportunity to dive and hear stories about him from Navy divers is an experience I will never forget.”
Brashear says he intends to pursue his diving certification and plans to visit Vortex Spring for more diving excursions in the future.
Meanwhile, Angela Dockery of Vortex Spring says she is working with dive instructors to make the Mark V dive opportunity available to any diving enthusiast who wants to experience the iconic helmet.
“Phillip’s visit was a great way to kick off the preservation of this important part of our history,” said Dockery. “We hope to be able to offer this experience a couple times a year beginning in the Spring.”
To learn more about Carl Brashear, visit the Carl Brashear foundation at carlbrashear.org