Erroll M. Brown Coast Guard's First African-American Admiral
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 3, 2004 One day in 1967, Erroll M. Brown, then a high school senior in St. Petersburg, Fla., opened his mailbox and pulled out a 3-by-5-inch white postcard addressed to him. It read in part, "Are you interested in going to the Coast Guard Academy?"
Rear Adm. Erroll M. Brown, the Coast Guard's first African- American flag officer, says success has a simple formula in the Coast Guard or any other military service: "You've got to work hard." Photo by Rudi Williams
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
If interested, the recipient was to check a little box and give the postcard to his guidance counselor so his grades could be mailed in. The teenager checked the box after discussing military service with his mother and stepfather. He saw the academy as a way to pay for his college education.
But he didn't have the slightest inkling that checking the "yes" box on the little white postcard would be his first step toward becoming the first African-American admiral in the Coast Guard's 207-year history in 1998.
"I'd played football in high school, but given my size, I wasn't going to get a football scholarship," said the 5-foot-6-inch, 157-pound rear admiral. "My mother, who was an elementary school teacher, had stressed the importance of education, so I wanted to continue my education. My father, who served two years in the Army, said military service was a good deal, and that he wished he'd stayed in."
His mother's words of wisdom still resonate today for the 53-year-old admiral: "Son, it's your decision, because you're the one who is going to have to do it." Armed with his parents' advice, the teenager had a decision to make.
"So I checked the 'yes' box, and here I am!" said the quick-witted Brown, who calls himself a "frustrated wanna-be basketball player." That's because he wanted to play basketball at the academy, but ended up making the football team and playing intramural basketball.
As the Coast Guard's assistant commandant for systems, Brown manages a $1 billion annual budget, nearly $8 billion in capital plant infrastructure, 174 employees in four headquarters directorates, and some 1,526 employees at three headquarters units. This includes the Coast Guard Yard and the Engineering Logistics Center in Baltimore and the Aircraft Repair and Supply Center in Elizabeth City, N.C.
Brown, known as the Coast Guard's "chief engineer", also is responsible for supporting the organization's five strategic goals of safety, protection of natural resources, mobility, maritime security and national defense.
He oversees the technical, logistics and engineering support for all Coast Guard operating programs. This includes performing or assisting in planning, design, construction, acquisition, renovation, maintenance, outfitting and alterations of cutters, boats, aircraft, motor vehicles, aides to navigation and shore facilities.
The Coast Guard's first African-American admiral said when he was selected for star rank in 1998, he was "shocked, humbled and honored. Making flag rank for anyone is very significant. Less than 1 percent of officers make it to flag rank, so it's a significant accomplishment."
Brown said he thanks the "giants" who paved the way for him to reach flag officer rank, particularly the African-Americans who were relegated to being cooks and stewards for so many years.
"This really shouldn't be about me; it's about what opportunities are created for others," he said. "It's also about maintaining that link to history and heritage, so when they see other African-Americans, they see a potential and opportunity, and not color.
"When a job has to be done, it's not about color, it's about competency, doing the right thing, getting the mission accomplished," the admiral continued. "That's the strength of our services and of our nation."
The admiral said the Coast Guard has given him the chance to prove himself and advance on his merits. "I love the fact that I'm accepted for Erroll Brown," he said. "I cherish that about the service and the people I have an opportunity to work with."
Brown, who graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1972 with a degree in marine engineering, holds four master's degrees: in naval architecture and marine engineering from the University of Michigan, one in industrial and operations engineering and another in business administration from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College.
"I'm one of those cases where you ended up close to where you started," Brown noted. "I took a drafting course in junior high school, which I loved, so I focused on mechanical drawing in high school. I gravitated towards fixing things engineering kind of stuff."
Brown said when he entered the Coast Guard Academy in 1968, the Vietnam War was full-blown and there was still a relativity high level of activism throughout the nation and in the services.
"Guys were still wearing Afros, and there were still racial issues on ships," he noted. "It was how much of this 'black power' are the services going to accept? When they looked at the numbers, it showed that a lot of the minorities had been glass-ceilinged." A glass ceiling is an unofficial policy that prevents women and minorities from advancing.
But the admiral said the Coast Guard was somewhat different from the other services because its size, mission and distribution aren't like those of the Defense Department. "We don't have large concentrations in major metropolitan areas," he noted. "When you compare our size to DoD, it pales in comparison. We're distributed all over. We don't have big bases or enclaves. So you find people at small stations isolated here and there."
Admitting that the Coast Guard had some of the same racial issues as the other services, Brown pointed out that compared to DoD, the issues "were slightly different and not of the same scale, magnitude and number."
Now, he said, it's easier for someone who has what it takes to move up. "The difference today is, it's not so much about ethnicity. It's more about competency, and the stage is shared with gender issues. I think we're ahead of some of the other organizations in those regards. But by and large, we've broken a lot of the barriers for minorities and for women," said Brown, whose brother, Vanaster Brown Jr., 55, retired from the Marine Corps as a master sergeant in 1994. His sister, Sybil King, 42, is a staff worker in the Pinellas County School System in the St. Petersburg area.
Despite the progress he described, the admiral said ethnic observances such as Black History Month still are important. "It's a link that tells us about our history and heritage. It stands as a shining example of what's possible, what people did with their opportunities, how they have prepared the way for us.
"It also serves as a reminder of the responsibility we carry and the opportunities we can create for others," continued Brown, who keeps in shape doing some of the same things he did in high school and college playing basketball and running. "It serves as a recognition and inspiration for others."
Brown said ethnic observances have made this a better nation because they've brought conversations into places where they needed to be. "It has also re- instilled a sense of pride in individuals in terms of their differences," he said. "As we look at our nation today, it's not just black and white, there are more issues, more ethnicities, more differences to be melted into our pot."
His advice to young Coast Guardsmen who want to have a successful career is for them to start with themselves and be clear about what they believe. "For me, religion is part of it," the admiral said. "They should decide what they believe in, what their values are service above self, family?"
And, he said, "be clear about your purpose. If you're going to come into the Coast Guard or some other military service, be very clear on the purpose of the organization and your purpose. In the service, it's service above self. It's about sacrifice, honor, duty, respect those kinds of values.
People shouldn't expect success to be handed to them, he said. "You've got to work hard," the admiral emphasized. "You can't make it by yourself. There are going to be opportunities and challenges. To move up, you have to work hard. It all starts with belief, purpose and action."
Noting that the services offer challenges and opportunities for all ethnicities, Brown said anyone who has spent time in the military "can't help but speak about all the opportunities that the services offer. If you're willing to work hard, the service is the place where opportunities are available and doors are being opened to reward your efforts."
Brown describes himself as a man who loves his family, his country and the Coast Guard. "I enjoy doing what I'm doing," he said. "I think I like the people and the experience of interaction with the people more than anything. I take my job very seriously, but don't take myself very seriously. I love to have fun, enjoy life and make the best of opportunities. I'm very serious about the mission at hand. And I like trying to help people create opportunities to grow."
As to the future for African-Americans in the Coast Guard, Brown said, "We grow our own from the bottom up. So it takes a long time to get to the top. We have in the hopper, six African-American captains and nine commanders."
Brown and his wife, the former Monica Hayes of Groton, Conn., have two children: Elise-Estee and Aaron. Elise is attending Yorktown University, and Aaron is at the University of Michigan.