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Chief Warrant Officer Kristopher David McGhee (he really prefers just David) has lived a bright life; lit by the opportunities and experiences of his 32 years in the Coast Guard. He will retire next month after an illustrious and accomplished career.
McGhee was born in Pensacola, Florida, but soon after his birth, he moved to Baltimore. He truly identifies with the city and the people in it. McGhee recalls much of his family and community members working in either healthcare or in law enforcement. Without knowing how, McGhee grew up knowing he wanted to pursue both noble career fields.
His journey in the Coast Guard, like every enlisted member, started at the recruiter’s office. His recruiter was a straightforward damage controlman first class from Philadelphia and McGhee trusted him.
“I told my recruiter I was interested in both health services and law enforcement, and the recruiter looked at me and said, ‘Well guess what, the Coast Guard does both,’” said McGhee.
McGhee went through bootcamp in 1991 and received orders to an aids-to-navigation unit and worked on Cutter Red Cedar, out of Portsmouth, Virginia. It was here that everything changed for the young McGhee.
“When I first found out that my first unit was going to be on a buoy tender, I thought, ‘what the heck is a buoy tender’… of course I had seen buoys before, but I thought they were just year-long holiday decorations on the water. And yeah, humpin’ chain and using a blow torch, those were just things that city kids didn’t do, but I think I gained 20 pounds of muscle in my first year there,” said McGhee.
Although McGhee was not yet in his exact career field at the aids to navigation unit, he always had the well-being of others on the top of his mind.
“I think it was my first or second week out of bootcamp when the Lighthouse for the Blind came on board to go fishing with the Coast Guard,” said McGhee. “Unfortunately, one of the ladies stepped too close to the buoy port and fell in. I immediately just went into the water screaming, ‘man overboard, starboard side’! I was able to keep her head and shoulders above the water until the crew could help me pull her back on deck using a buoy sling. Anyway, after that experience, I knew I was a Coastie for life.”
After an eventful three years as a non-rate in Portsmouth, McGhee received orders to the Navy’s Hospital Corpsman School where he continued his path towards helping people.
“A-school used to involve cadavers! And you used to need to maintain a 90% average, or you would be kicked out … pursuing deeper studies was really drilled into us in A-school. They also taught us about listening to people when they came in to see us. You need to care about the details. You had to learn how to listen to people and really find out how they were doing. That really intrigued me.”
After health services (HS) A-School in 1994, McGhee received orders back to his hometown in Baltimore at the Coast Guard Yard. As he had expected, McGhee enjoyed working at the clinic. He especially remembers treating and sharing stories with members of a law enforcement detachment team (LEDET). LEDETs are specialized, deployable maritime law enforcement teams of the Coast Guard, designed to combat illegal drug trafficking around the world.
The law enforcement side of the Coast Guard continued to call to McGhee’s adventurous side, but there had never been a ‘doc’ on any of the LEDETs since they were established a decade prior. McGhee knew this needed to change and that he was the HS to do it. McGhee deployed all of his charm and might to make it to San Diego where he became the first ever HS on the Pacific Tactical Law Enforcement Team (PACTACLET) in 1997 and stayed until 2002.
After experiencing the pinnacle of personal fulfillment and becoming both a health services professional and an operational member of a TACLET, McGhee realized that the Coast Guard was full of opportunity, as long as he was willing to ask for it.
“While I was there, I had a commanding officer (CO) who said he wanted to do an experiment on me. He wanted to make it more common to have corpsman out (with the LEDET teams), so he sent me to every crazy school he could,” said McGhee.
While stationed at PACTACLET, McGhee racked-up a long list of historic firsts and impressive qualifications:
The list of adventures, skills, and accomplishments that McGhee collected through his career would cause even Dos Equis Beer advertisement’s “Most Interesting Man in the World” to question why he didn’t join the Coast Guard and follow McGhee around.
“My grandmother always told me, ‘A closed mouth will not get fed,’” said McGhee of his conspicuous ability to learn and achieve. On the same thought, McGhee gave one last reflection on his career, “People of color, women, there weren’t always equal opportunities for us. And so, I figured if you’re exceptional, they have to notice you. You cannot deny excellence.”
The type of excellence McGhee exhibited in his 32-year career has rippled across the service. Every young member who crossed his path and witnessed McGhee daring to live-out he full extent of his dreams while also serving his country and his community would become better for it. Some say representation is everything, that it takes a sort of maverick to let the greater society know what is possible. All of us who have now read his story or met McGhee in person are now in possession of the gift of knowing that we too can live the most unimaginable version of our life.
There is no denying the impact McGhee has had on the Coast Guard and the nation in his 32 years of service. Thank you for your enduring dedication CWO McGhee and congratulations on your retirement! Fair winds and following seas, sir.