At the heart of The Citadel, an institution rich with military tradition and leadership since its founding in 1842, is its corps of cadets. Amid the sea of grey cadet uniforms on campus is one member who stands out with his Coast Guard blue – Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Gelwicks Jr.
Gelwicks is the first Coast Guard officer to be employed at The Citadel and is currently the Bravo Company tactical officer with the Office of the Commandant.
How did Gelwicks find his way to the Citadel? It’s where he came from. A Charleston native, there was never any question as to where he wanted to attend college. He started at The Citadel in 1970, graduating in 1974. The Vietnam War ended his senior year and after graduation he worked at the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office and the South Carolina Tax Commission as a revenue officer.
As Gelwicks started his career in the civilian world, he was also starting one with the military, enlisting in the Coast Guard Reserve. He credits his father as his inspiration for joining.
“My father is the main reason I enlisted … [he] was in the Pacific with the U.S. Navy during WWII and served in the Coast Guard Reserve from 1964 to 1989,” said Gelwicks.
Gelwicks worked his way up the ranks in the reserves and became a chief warrant officer in June 1999 and retired in November 2012. With more than 29 years of service, he executed a full range of missions including, Desert Shield and Desert Storm deployments, operations post-Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina recovery, Deepwater Horizon response and several space shuttle and trident missile operations in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
His unique operational experiences make him a standout at The Citadel and his impact on campus has resulted in more awareness for the Coast Guard’s maritime and military missions. There were no Coast Guard-affiliated programs on the campus when he arrived and after several cadets came forward with interest in a program, a Coast Guard club formed.
With Gelwicks as the club’s advisor, another Citadel alumni, Bill Riley, helped the club form their own Auxiliary detachment. The Citadel is now one of very few colleges in the nation to support an Auxiliary detachment and for a cadet to be a member of the club they must join the Auxiliary or Reserve.
Gelwicks is quick to dismiss any credit for the club’s success, saying it wasn’t him “but my Coast Guard uniform I wear every day that made Coast Guard interest grow on The Citadel campus.”
Members of the club disagree. Cadet Christopher Zeller is a petty officer third class in the Coast Guard Reserve and says Gelwicks is a testament to the qualities a great leader should have.
“Mr. Gelwicks was my first real mentor with anything related to the Coast Guard,” said Zeller. “Being a grad himself he already knew how the system was supposed to work, and how to accomplish making it through. He was a great help in both areas.”
Zeller reflected on moments in which he saw Gelwicks as “being strong and unshakable” and true to his role as a tactical officer “would get on the company’s case about haircuts or uniform standards.”
But to Zeller, Gelwicks doesn’t represent the disciplinarian who gets on their case; he’s their inspiration.
“Mr. Gelwicks is not just a great asset to the Coast Guard, or to The Citadel, he is what every man should live to be like,” said Zeller. “From having such a strong moral ground, to respecting and upholding traditions, showing leadership by example, listening and considering everyone’s opinion and having the ability to express passion to that extent – these are not just traits of a Citadel graduate, or a retired Coast Guardsman, this is the standard of what a man should try to reach. Mr. Gelwicks has not just reached this standard he has set the bar for it.”