On his navy-blue T-shirt sporting the U.S. Navy core values of “Honor, Courage, Commitment,” Bob McCarty wears an award that no parent ever wants to receive.
The award is very small. It is gold and maybe a half of an inch in diameter. In the center is a gold star. Like many other family members across the country who have lost sons, daughters, spouses, brothers, and sisters, Bob wears this pendant in honor of his daughter making the ultimate sacrifice to her nation.
Bob’s daughter, GSM2 Kellye McCarty passed away on her final day of the Surface Search and Rescue Swimmer School at Naval Air Station Jacksonville (NAS Jax) on July 22, 2002. Almost two decades after Kelly passed, Bob wanted to visit the school to pay homage to his fallen daughter. This was a request that the U.S. Navy would happily grant.
“Kellye and I were really close and she loved her daddy,” Bob said.
“I could always tell by the Father’s Day cards and the birthday cards. I always supported her. I wouldn’t necessarily approve, but we could always have a conversation.”
Kellye entered the Navy in 1992 after being encouraged by her father, a Navy veteran, to obtain structure and discipline in her life. That decision couldn’t have made Bob happier.
“Of course I was proud of her that she joined the Navy and committed to something that I knew that could be structured,” Bob said. “I never worried about her. She was a tough little gal.”
“She fit in and loved it immediately,” said Melanie McCarty, Kellye’s stepmother. “She loved the discipline, the structure and what it forced her to find out about herself.”
After serving 10 years in the Navy, and two of those as a gas turbine systems technician, Kellye aspired to become a search and rescue (SAR) swimmer. In 2002 she entered the Surface Search and Rescue School at NAS Jax.
The SAR course is no walk in the park. It is a physically grueling course designed to push participants to their physical and mental limits. At any point, if a Sailor sounds off the words, “I quit,” they are automatically removed from the course. Those were two words that Kellye never uttered.
“She didn’t know the word, ‘quit,’” Bob said. “She was very independent.”
During SAR school, every classmate is assigned a number, not a rank. This is the manner in which the instructors refer to them. Kellye’s was “zero-five.”
“I would see her every day,” said retired AWC Bruce Kane, an instructor at the school when Kellye attended.
“We [physically trained] every day on the grinder and in the pool. She was a very assertive young lady and very determined.”
In a course where many 27-year-old Sailors consider themselves to be too old to participate, Kellye was 38. However, her can-do attitude and tenacious work ethic inspired her fellow classmates.
“It’s not just saying that you want to come here and be a rescue swimmer,” said retired Capt. James Pendley, a former commodore of Helicopter Anti-Submarine Wing U.S. Atlantic Fleet, who was the commodore when Kellye attended the school.
“You’ve got to put the work and effort in every day. Kellye really did that here in a way that inspired everyone. At 38 years old, she really had the heart to come here and inspire everyone.”
On the morning of Sunday, July 21, 2002, Kellye was facing her final test to become a certified U.S. Navy rescue swimmer. She called her dad.
“We talked that Sunday,” Bob said. “She said, ‘Dad, I’ll be graduating soon.’ Of course, she never made it.”
That Monday morning, Kellye was completing a routine 2,000-meter swim, that was to be followed by a 2,000-meter open-river swim that was to be completed that evening. She lost consciousness and never regained it.
“That Monday, I had a strange feeling all day,” Bob said. “Finally, around 3 o’clock, I left the office and went home. As I turned the corner, in the cul-de-sac, I saw two white uniforms going up to the front door. I knew Kellye was dead.”
A memorial service was held for Kellye at the chapel on NAS Jax. At her class’ graduation, Kellye was posthumously awarded The Inspirational Leader Award, an award that is presented to students who inspired their class to work as a team and to overcome all obstacles.
Nearly 16 years after Kellye’s death, Bob asked to see the school where Kellye passed. The Navy gratefully obliged to his request and on May 17, Bob toured the facility where Kellye gave it her all.
Like many professional sports teams, the SAR school also retires numbers of teammates who have gone above and beyond. During his tour, the school asked Bob pull a sheet off on an object that was hanging on the wall on the school’s quarterdeck.
When he removed the white sheet, he unveiled an oak-framed shadow box with a black suede matboard interior. Sewn into the matboard was a white jersey. On the jersey were the stenciled numbers, “zero-five.”
“Thank you all for doing this,” Bob said. “I don’t want to say that this was on my bucket list, but if it was, it would complete my bucket list. I’m very humbled about what you’re doing.”
Bob also had the opportunity to tour the hangar of the “Jaguars” of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 60, a helicopter squadron similar to what Kellye would have joined after her completion of the school.
Whether he wears it or not, every single day the gold-star pendant will forever be attached to Bob. It’s the pendant that no family strives to wear. It is the pendant that no parent of a service member wants.
However, Bob wears it proudly.
“The Navy couldn’t have done any more,” Bob said. “I’m a man of very strong faith. I believe what the Bible says. There is a purpose to all things.”