When Maricopa resident and retired Coast Guard Rear Admiral Steven E. Day discusses his lengthy list of military achievements, it is with equal parts humility and respect for the successes and contributions of family members and mentors.
“You understand how people helped you,” Day exclaimed. “One of the biggest things I ever learned is that humility is the cornerstone of leadership.”
The Day family’s giving back begins with Steven’s father. Colonel Charles Day entered the Army in April 1941 and, five years later, became a “bird colonel,” slang for a member of the U.S. armed forces with the rank of full colonel, as distinct from a lieutenant colonel. (The name is taken from the insignia of rank, a depiction of an eagle.) A military policeman, he served 32 years, while also working in the Veterans Administration while with the Reserves.
“We’d always address him as Colonel,” Day shared. “It was out of respect and a term of endearment. Dad always felt everyone who lived in this country owed two years of service in some form.”
As a high school junior, Day saw his brother, Mike, join the Coast Guard in 1966. It was the beginning of a career that would last 42 years. One year later — on July 17, 1967 — a 17-year-old Steven followed his older brother, enlisting in the sometimes-overlooked branch of the military.
“My father was at D-Day (in World War II). He went in on day two or three. He always had the greatest respect for anyone who went in on day one,” Day recalled. “He talked about the Rangers taking the point, was impressed with their service and said they do their job every day. He was the impetus (for my enlistment).”
Despite joining a unit with primarily older men who had some college experience, it didn’t take long for Day to take an important step in his development. Heeding brother Mike’s advice to keep ears open and mouth shut during boot camp, he was nevertheless selected by the chief quartermaster as master of arms. This was after three others had been dismissed from the role in the first few weeks of training.
“The thing he (Harry K. Schneider) did was instill confidence in me,” Day affirmed. “He gave me that first leadership and learning opportunity. He pushed me out of my comfort zone, and that’s what I needed. I never forgot that.”
His own distinguished career, as well as his family’s extraordinary service to the country, are captured on a Challenge Coin that he designed and proudly shares (see sidebar).
Traveling the world
Steven Day went on to serve as a damage controlman (maintenance and emergency repair specialist). His training and experience in the areas of welding, pipefitting, carpentry and firefighting led to teaching industrial arts on his exit from enlisted service. It was a career he enjoyed at the high school level from 1975 to 1987; he also was an adjunct college professor for 25 years.
Married in 1975 and being in the Reserves at the time, wife Shari asked how much longer he was going to serve. Day’s goal was to go 20 years and make chief.
When Shari pondered, “What if you ever get recalled?” Day responded, “That’s not likely to happen.”
“But sure enough, I got recalled an awful lot,” Day said.
He deployed with the Reserves to several destinations:
- Jordan in 1985 and 1987
- Port of Dammam, Saudi Arabia, in support of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.
- Mauritania, Nigeria, Uganda and South Africa, where a museum in Soweto (home of Nelson Mandela) reminded Day of the racial divide in the southern United States.
- South Korea, Egypt and Bahrain, while in command of a port security unit
“I was fascinated by the different cultures and respected all of them,” Day said. “Bahrain was a very interesting country. They enjoyed life. I called it the Las Vegas of the Middle East. Korea was a lot like Wisconsin in the geography and there was the tenacity and pride of the ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers.”
Day was involved when port security units were formed in 1984 in Key West, Florida.
“Now permanent, port security units are 97% manned by reservists. It was the best job in the world,” he proclaimed. “I was fortunate enough to serve on three and command two.”
Typical training exercises and deployments might last 20 days with about 120 members in a unit. Operation Desert Storm was another story, marking the first time since World War II that the Coast Guard Reserve had been called up to active duty. That call came in August 1990, the day after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
Day’s unit was in the Middle East a month later. “The big thing was the uncertainty,” he recalled. “We weren’t sure when we were going to go home.”
It turned out to be a nine-month tour.
Reaching the pinnacle
The intriguing assignments continued. In 2003, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Day was deployed to the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon, where “you can walk every floor and learn something historic.”
In 2007, 40 years to the day after he enlisted, Day received a phone call informing him he had been selected to the Flag Corps (officers authorized to fly their flags under appropriate conditions). The word came from Admiral Thad Allen — he had served with Mike Day — who was commandant of the Coast Guard.
“I’m not an Academy grad and had come up through the ranks,” Steven Day noted. “I’m proud of my 12 years as enlisted and the Good Conduct Medal that came out of that. It’s important to not forget where you came from.”
Day’s additional decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, three Meritorious Service Medals, three Joint Defense Commendation Medals, two Coast Guard Commendation Medals, Navy Commendation Medal, Coast Guard Achievement Medal and a Joint Defense Achievement Medal.
He particularly enjoyed the service with other branches of the military. In addition, for someone who says he never dreamed of going to college, he earned associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in addition to taking part in courses at the Naval War College, Army War College, Harvard and MIT.
“We have the most educated military in the world,” Day said. He appreciates the strong support he received from his various private sector employers and advocates for the important work of ESGR (Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve).
“We (in the Guard and Reserves) choose to have two careers. (In those cases) employers get a heck of a great employee.”
Coming to Maricopa
Day’s service was not yet complete. In 2010, he was recalled as part of disaster response to both the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Haitian earthquake. In 2012, he was preparing to retire before being assigned to Coast Guard Headquarters as director of Reserve and Military Personnel Policy — the first reserve flag officer to permanently serve in that role.
On a trip to Los Angeles and Hawaii to visit units, he and Shari stopped in Maricopa to see Day’s sister and brother-in-law. They bought a home in Province in August 2012. A few months later, Day was asked to remain in the post another year. The couple eventually came to Maricopa together in 2014 and have wintered here since.
“We’re in Wisconsin in the summertime. Our three granddaughters are a mile away,” Day shared. Two grandsons are in Pennsylvania, where his son-in-law works and is now a major in the Marine Corps Reserve as part of an ongoing 30-year career.
“I love being in Province. People who know me will find me on the tennis court in the morning and there are socialization opportunities if you want to take advantage of them,” he said. “The city of Maricopa is unbelievable. There appears to be a great understanding, respect and appreciation for the city and what it is trying to do.
Exceeding the Challenge
Steven Day’s self-designed Challenge Coin features his quote: “No problems in life, just numerous leadership and learning opportunities.”
The front of the coin includes:
- Coast Guard core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty
- Port Security Unit and Boat Forces pins. Day was commanding officer of various units for both.
- Day’s E-6 first class rank – to remind him where he came from
Family is the focus on the back of the coin with these elements:
- Coast Guard Reserve core values of preparedness, professionalism and patriotism circling the Reserve shield
- Yeoman, Storekeeper and Damage Controlman rates represent the 118 years of Coast Guard service of Day and his two brothers.
- Crossed pistols honor the Army career of his father, who was also Chief of Traffic Control during the Normandy invasion
An Air Force symbol is for Day’s sister and her service both in that branch and the Michigan National Guard
- An eagle, globe and anchor represent Major Sean Leahy, Day’s son-in-law. He has completed tours in Iraq and Afghanistan during a distinguished career.
This story was first published in the January edition of InMaricopa magazine.