Dec. 29, 2005 — It's a far leap from the halls of Ivanna Eudora Kean High School to the helm of the U. S. Coast Guard's 295-foot Eagle, the largest tall ship flying the Stars and Stripes and the only square-rigger in U.S. government service.
U. S. Coast Guard Academy Cadet Elroy Allen, a 2003 IEK graduate, spent last summer at the Eagle's helm, though not alone "There is always someone watching you," Allen said as the ship sailed around the Mediterranean in the summer of 2005.
When in homeport in New London, Conn., the Eagle rests alongside a pier on the Thames River at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
And, closer to home, Allen has another distinction. When he graduates in 2007, he will be the second male Virgin Islander to graduate from the USCG in 27 years. (Retired Cmdr. Austin Callwood graduated in 1980.)
Another Virgin Islander, IEK graduate Karima Greenaway, earned the title of first Virgin Islands woman to ever graduate from the prestigious school earlier this month.
"I always knew I wanted to join the military," Allen says, as we sit in the boardroom of the Coast Guard building on the waterfront, which the USCG has graciously loaned us.
Allen isn't intimidated by the surroundings. In fact, it soon becomes apparent that he isn't easily intimidated at all. His experiences at the academy, coming from a small high school, in a place many of his classmates had never heard of, has served him well.
"You learn to get along," he says, with his generous slow smile.
Allen is a tall, good-looking young man, happy to be talking about his ambitions. "There are other students from the West Indies at the academy — one from St. Vincent," he says, "and a few others from here and St. Croix."
Other V.I. cadets, also home on vacation, are: Diana Isidore and Luis Garcia of St. Croix; Nkosi Thomas, Urdley Smith and Scott Ledee of St. Thomas.
"I knew with the military, it would spare my parents the financial expense of further education," he says. Allen says his parents — Joycelyn, a nurse, and Elroy Sr., a contractor — are happy with his choice. "They keep telling me how proud they are." His 17-year-old sister, Joselyn, an IEK senior, completes the family.
Once at IEK, Allen joined the JROTC program, where he first came to the attention of Lt. Col. David Waller, the program leader.
Talking with Waller later, it becomes apparent that Allen has left a lot out of our conversation the day before. "He can be very modest," Waller says. "Elroy was an outstanding student. He came with a very well-established set of personal values; he has one of the better and more supportive families.
"He had a natural interest in the sea," Waller says. "I encouraged him to think about the Coast Guard."
Allen credits Waller, Sgt. Maj. Oscar Ward and Sgt. Maj. Joanne Cruz with spurring him on to the academy. "And Karima [Greenaway]. She encouraged me to try it out," Allen says.
Waller says Allen was the JROTC's longest-serving battalion commander. "Starting the spring semester of his junior year he was our cadet commander. We were grooming him to be battalion commander next year," Waller says, "but we had some changes in the senior students, so he became battalion commander then. It's a lot of responsibility. And then, he was the most distinguished graduate from our summer camp. Elroy was a shining star before he even left here."
Waller stresses the challenge of making it into the Coast Guard academy. "It's harder to get in than Harvard or the other Ivy League schools, in terms of criteria. It is the smallest of the military academies, with about 400 applicants [accepted] each year."
Allen was offered a direct appointment to the USCGA. He says, however, his academic career was preceded by a "swab summer a summer I'll never forget." He says it was "basically boot camp, an introduction to the academy … You learn Coast Guard history, you have to walk at attention all the time and you can't talk. It's a lot of training."
Allen attends the academy on a full scholarship worth about $300,000, according to Waller. "It is a quality education." Last year Allen was on the Dean's List and the Commandant's List. "I don't know about this year," he says, "the grades aren't out yet."
He is studying information technology. "I'm certified to repair hardware on computers now," he says. However, he doesn't talk about his academic life with the same enthusiasm he exhibits for life aboard the Eagle.
Allen was the Eagle's cadet executive officer. "XXO is how you say it," he explains. "We went to Portugal, Spain, the Canaries, with three different cadet classes. The classes are about 100 each."
One of the main things he learned, Allen says, was humility. "It was really humbling standing in front of all the cadets and the crew. Some of the enlisted men were older than me. My friend on the ship, Bosun's Mate Blake Leedy is 24. You have to be humble."
To maneuver the Eagle under sail, the crew must handle more than 22,000 square feet of sail and five miles of rigging. Over 200 lines control the sails and yards, and every crew member, cadet and officer candidate, must become intimately familiar with the name, operation, and function of each line.
"And we do it in three weeks," Allen says. "The crew is a blessing. I got so much more experience this summer," he says. "The cadets have to get their 'sea legs,' a lot of them get seasick at first. We had a couple pretty rough storms at the first of the summer."
"You have to be in foul weather gear to be at the pilot house outside in the rain. You teach them line handling, safety, navigation, radar and sometimes they get to steer, but there's always someone there for safety."
Allen earned his sea legs the summer of 2004 on the Eagle as it sailed to the Bahamas, Key West and Savannah, Ga.
Breaking away from his natural modesty, Allen admits, "I got helm- and lookout-qualified I'm pretty proud of that."
Though he misses his home and family, Allen says he has another family at the academy. We have different companies. It's about 200 guys, but you get to know all of them. It's competitive, we have our own flags."
If he has adjusted to the life on campus and at sea, there's still one thing Allen hasn't adjusted to: the freezing temperatures.
"I'd never even seen snow before," he says. "Even bundled up in a parka, I'm still cold."
Add to that the fact that they do their swimming practices in fresh water — in a fresh water pool. "It's about 17 above now," Allen says, "and they leave the door open to the pool room, but you get used to it."
One of the things the cadets learn is to prevent hypothermia, so maybe the setting is appropriate. "They teach you lots of things," Allen says, "like how to take off your trousers under water and make a flotation device out of them. But I'm used to salt water, which is so buoyant. Fresh water is entirely different."
He abruptly leans forward with a happy smile, as if just realizing he is home again. "It's warm again I'm a fish again," he says. "It gets so cold up there it's hard to breathe. I'm at the beach now every day."
Though he loves the sea, Allen says the future is in the sky. Helicopters? "Oh, no. I want to fly a Lear jet. They do search-and-rescue missions, lots of things, keep a watch on fisheries."
Waller says that the captain of the Eagle has been trying his darndest to get Allen to come back as a key instructor-trainer for this summer.
However, Allen says he plans to do an aviation internship this summer, and then go on a cutter for five
weeks after that. He says, "If it works out, you have a better shot at getting into flight school. There's schools at Pensacola and Cape Cod. The flight program is a rigorous two-year course."
Looking out at the harbor as we leave the Coast Guard office, Allen pauses. "I used to take it all for granted, I guess," adding, "It's just so beautiful here."
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