Every time Canyon Country resident Thomas Curry tells someone he’s part of the Merchant Marines, they completely ignore the “merchant” part and simply think “Marines,” he said.
The Merchant Marines are a “service” that most might not fully understand, but still serve a vital purpose for the United States armed forces. Though not part of the military, they operate federally owned merchant vessels and, in times of war, work as an auxiliary to the Navy.
“The U.S. Flag Merchant Marine — manned by U.S. merchant mariners — is essential for securing the country’s commerce in peacetime and delivering warfighters, weapons and military supplies in times of conflict,” said Marilyn Lilli Livi, vice president of the USMMA Alumni Association & Foundation.
Curry recently graduated cum laude from the United States Merchant Marine Academy, or USMMA, in Kings Point, New York, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in marine engineering, a commission in any branch of the armed forces and a Merchant Marine officer license, qualifying him to serve as an officer on any U.S. merchant marine ship.
The USMMA is one of the five federal service academies, which frequently rank amongst the top universities in the nation. Students pay no tuition, and instead are required to serve in the military upon graduation.
“In addition to the rigorous academic and physical requirements for admission, applicants must be nominated by their Congressman or Senator,” Livi said.
Curry isn’t the first in his family to attend the USMMA, he’s following in his older brother’s footsteps — but he still was a bit reluctant to attend at first.
“It’s military style, so your first year is hard, but thinking back to it, it wasn’t really as hard as it was made out to be,” he said. “That first year was the only year I actually questioned why I was there. Then after that, I realized it was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
On Curry’s first trip out to sea, he traveled to Malta on a New York Maritime training vessel with 13 guys. He then went to the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan.
“That was a lot of fun because I was with a bunch of buddies,” he added, and after work, they could explore each city where they were docked.
When he came back, he joined the swim and dive team, which he said was another good decision.
“It’s not like other sports where you’re super competitive with the other guys,” he said. “You kind of become friends with your opponents, which was fun.”
The USMMA only has about five degrees to choose from, all of which are related to math and science. Though he was studying marine engineering systems, school wasn’t as tough as he thought it would be.
“We’re pretty much mechanical engineers with a focus in marine industry,” he added. “I have all the requirements I need to be a mechanical engineer and then some.”
He loved that he was able to travel, and throughout the course of his four years, he was also able to go to the Middle East and to Alaska, which was actually his favorite trip.
Curry was on a ship that departed from Tacoma to Anchorage, then traveled to Kodiak, Alaska, to bring supplies and pick up fish.
“It was absolutely beautiful,” he said.
During his time on the ship, he would help work on the engines, such as replacing pistons, maintain them and monthly crankcase inspections looking for debris and damages.
The ship he took to Alaska was a seven-cylinder slow-speed diesel engine, which had pistons that were three stories tall.
“The other ships I was on were steam ships, which were much hotter,” he said. “It got to 115 degrees in the engine room in the Middle East.”
Curry was also able to do a military internship during his time at school, which was perfect for him as he got to get a taste of what he wanted to do in the future.
“One of the coolest things I did at school was when I had the opportunity to do a Navy flight internship down in Coronado between my sophomore and junior year,” he said.
He was able to go on a few flights on a C-2 Greyhound, including one where they flew to Santa Barbara and back, and another to Lake Havasu.
“We opened up the cargo door and we actually got on the plane during flight,” Curry said. “I got to go on the harness and walk out to the edge of the plane in flight (over San Diego) … then I got to fly (the plane) for a bit.”
“It’s pretty cool that we not only get a taste of the merchant fleet, but we also get a taste of the military side,” he added.
Curry graduated cum laude on June 15 and said it feels nice to be back in Santa Clarita.
Now, he wants to become a Navy test pilot, and is planning to get some sailing jobs here on the West Coast while he waits for medical clearance.
“The greatest thing about this school is options,” he said. “I really want to get going in the Navy, but I love the other options too. If the military doesn’t work out, I can sail or I can go shoreside and do a mechanical engineering job, or I can do any branch of the military I want.”