Looking out his office window from the "sixth deck" of the Federal Building, United States Coast Guard 17th District Chief of Staff Captain Michael Neussl watched a Jayhawk helicopter fly along Gastineau Channel.
"That is what did it," Neussl said, as the orange and white machine disappeared. "Seeing one of those in the local newspaper near San Francisco plucking some salmon fisherman out of the water while I was in middle school, I thought, 'Man, that's what I would like to do.' I actually wrote a report about being a Coast Guard helicopter pilot for an English class in junior high. Dreams do come true."
For Neussl, 51, a small boy's dreams resulted in over 30 years of service to his country. The Coast Guard held a formal retirement ceremony Thursday morning at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center to officially retire Neussl as district chief of staff.
"It's been very rewarding." Neussl said. "There is job satisfaction and closure. You go out on a mission and you accomplish it or you don't, hopefully you do."
Eleven days after his high-school graduation in Geyserville, California, in 1976, Neussl went to the Coast Guard academy in New London, Connecticut. It was the first co-ed class at the academy. While there he took his first trip to Alaska on a cadet cruise.
"We had salmon bakes on the mountains," Neussl smiled. "I said, 'I have to come back to this place. It had impressive scenery and neat people.'"
During Neussl's first year at the academy he met Martha, the sister of an academy instructor. They were married the day after graduation.
His first orders were aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Resolute in Astoria, Oregon, in '80. His son Eric, now 29, was born there.
"As a kid I used to go up the Oregon coast to go camping," Neussl said. "It was a neat place and I wanted to get assigned there."
As deck-watch officer, Neussl's duties included communications, weapons and boarding. The newness of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 meant Neussl would board Russian and Polish factory fishing trawlers 12 miles off the coast, something that would be unheard of today. He also qualified as a landing signal officer on the cutter's flight deck.
"It was motivational watching those choppers land and take off, it was what I wanted to do," Neussl said. "Some aviators don't like their shipboard training, I really enjoyed mine."
During that tour he was accepted for flight training. Promoted after a year and a half service, Lt. Neussl went to Pensacola in '81, the launching point for flight training of every Guard, Navy, and Marine pilot. Though the Coast Guard had sent him to be a pilot, the Navy said he would have to be a 'back seat driver,' due to eye-sight issues. He got a waiver for his 20-25 vision and began flying.
"I guess the Coast Guard needed pilots at the time so I got the waiver," Neussl said.
After flight school he went to Mobile, Alabama, and was then assigned back to Astoria in '83. He upgraded through the three Coast Guard pilot qualifications while there; from co-pilot, to first pilot, and then aircraft commander. Here he experienced an engine failure while hovering over a boat during a training flight on the Columbia River, and his successful water landing is still discussed among the commands. His daughter Amy, now 25, was born there.
In '86 he got his first tour to Alaska, in Sitka. Daughter's Kelsey, now 24, and Allison, now 21, were born there. A highlight was flying on the Exxon Valdez incident, which included having then-Sen. Ted Stevens as a passenger. He also made the first-ever landing of a Coast Guard helicopter on a Navy ship, the USS Fort McHenry.
"It was exciting and challenging," Neussl said. "Mainly we were transporting people around there, but we did take the first rehabilitated sea otter back to the wild, landed on a beach and let him swim away."
In '89 Neussl was selected for post-graduate training at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, receiving a masters of science in engineering. As a payback to the government, he went to the Coast Guard's Aircraft Repair and Supply Center at Elizabeth City, North Carolina, from '91 through '95.
"Maintaining helicopters is interesting to me," Neussl said. "I am a math guy by nature. Flying machine operations, finding and fixing problems, is fascinating."
In '95 he was appointed aeronautical engineering officer back in Astoria. There he was promoted to commander and screened for aviation command. He also applied to be a NASA space shuttle missions specialist, becoming a finalist for the honor.
"I wasn't sure if I was going to be a C.O. or going to Johnson Space Center for astronaut training," Neussl said. "Both were pretty good deals. Turns out I came close but didn't get the space job."
Neussl became commanding officer at the air station in San Francisco in '98, where he learned to fly under the Golden Gate Bridge, in the fog. In 2000 he became search and rescue branch chief in Juneau and was promoted to captain, and in 2003 was selected as commanding officer in Kodiak, the Coast Guard's largest overseas and Pacific area command. Weather, mountains, and vast distance were obstacles. One of Neussl's choppers was lost during a rescue of crew from a beached freighter in Unalaska; six of the ships' crew perished.
"It was just bad conditions," Neussl said. "It's a risky business."
Neussl also flew a medevac mission to Adak requiring three fuel stops and over eight hours in the dark using night-vision goggles.
Commented Neussl, "We never saw anything but the three runways we landed on and never were above 300 feet. The weather was not so good."
In '06 Neussl became chief of response division in Honolulu, Hawaii, but his brief stint in the sun was cut short by an appointment as chief of staff back in Juneau the next year.
"Alaska to me is the paradise," Neussl stated. "I tell you though, in my opinion, the real sacrifice of military service is not borne by the service member but by the family. Every one to four years they are yanked away from friends and schools and everything else they are doing. We were fortunate to be able to be in Juneau and come back here."
June 30 will be his last day of active duty. His replacement is Capt. Norman L. Custard. Neussl will attend UAS to receive his masters of arts in teaching and said he hopes to teach at a local school.
As another Jayhawk moved along Gastineau Channel, from Mount Roberts north to the Mendenhall Wetlands, Neussl craned his neck to follow its path.
"They do that sometimes to get my goat" he laughed. "They know I am sitting here wishing I was out there. But somebody has to do the management part so they can fly the missions. I had my turn to do that, was lucky enough to rise through the ranks to this job... but I look longingly when they fly by."
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