By Kienan Briscoe, For the Reporter
Since moving to Mercer Island at age 12, Gabriel Andrews’ life was on a downward spiral fueled by substance abuse and getting into trouble. Had he continued this lifestyle, he would have ended up “dead or in prison,” he said. But before either of those came true, Andrews sought counseling, joined the United States Navy, took charge of his life, and is currently pursuing a college education and a leadership role in the Army.
When his family relocated to Mercer Island from Atlanta, Georgia, in 2007, Andrews struggled to relate to most kids his age. The people he did relate with were into drugs, alcohol and various criminal activity. Andrews said he had a complicated relationship with his parents and he found a sense of community in this group he felt was missing from his home life. Things only got worse once he entered high school, and he eventually found himself in counseling.
Counseling granted Andrews his first glimpse of the direness of needing to change up his life. It also allowed him to recognize and understand some “childhood trauma” that may have been influencing his decision-making and to form a better communication with his parents. He dug himself out of his rut and transferred high schools, effectively raised his grade point average and setting himself up for success until entering college.
While attending Western Washington University, Andrews began to fall into his old habits — running with the wrong crowd and abusing substances. Recognizing this, he dropped out of school and moved back home where he had a “heart-to-heart” with his father. It was the first time his father admitted to never being there for him, Andrews said, but most importantly, he really drilled home how important it was for Andrews to get his life back on the straight and narrow.
Shortly after, while working as a barista at a local coffee shop, a couple of men in Navy uniforms walked into his shop. Andrews thanked them for their service, having been taught to do so growing up, and they responded by asking if he had any interest in enlisting. Never before considering it, and somewhat on a whim, he said he was and visited the recruiting office the next day for more information.
His parents weren’t initially excited about his decision to join the Navy, but Andrews built upon his father’s previous point — he had to change his life around and, for Andrews, that meant getting out of the city where he had “haunting memories” and temptations. He entered the Navy as an Aviation Boatswain Mate (ABH) in 2017.
When Andrews showed up to boot camp, in Illinois, that’s when it truly hit him that he needed more structure to his life. It was also the first time he was separated from his parents and made a life-changing decision by himself. It was then that he realized that he was capable of more than he was aware of.
Fueled by motivation and a desire to do well, Andrews ranked up pretty quickly, becoming a petty officer and placed in a leadership position soon after. Through his time with the Navy, he circumnavigated the globe, served in the Global War on Terrorism, and worked with people he normally wouldn’t commiserate with.
Working with a variety of people, from a variety of backgrounds, was one of the things Andrews loved most about his time in the Navy.
“I hold the Navy in my heart for many reasons, but a large part of it is just saving my life,” said Andrews. “It got me out of Seattle, it put me in a new environment, and it forced me to change … [In the military] you lose your sense of self, but in a way you gain a better sense of self.”
Andrews did a lot of soul searching during his long time out at sea. Beginning as a “blue shirt” for a year — operating motorized gear, chock and chaining aircrafts to the flight deck, and operating aircraft elevators among other duties — he met a few friends at the gym who worked in crash and salvage (aircraft rescue firefighters) and eventually worked his way up to their roles.
As Andrews looks back at his time in the service, he has both good and bad memories, like when he lost a close friend, Joseph Min Naglak, on the flight deck of the USS George H.W Bush, when he was struck by a propellor of a E-2C Hawkeye radar plane.
While his time in the Navy has been challenging in a number of ways, Andrews said it was the most he’s laughed in his entire life. The bond he formed with the people surrounding him, “knowing them on levels that civilians will never understand,” is his favorite memory.
“I had best friends with some people back home, but nothing compares to my brothers I served with,” said Andrews. “That was the biggest takeaway from the military. The community is so strong.”
Andrews is currently finishing his sixth and final year with the U.S. Navy and plans to move to Hawaii soon with his wife. There he plans to return to college at Hawaii Pacific University to obtain his bachelor’s degree in psychology before enlisting in ROTC to be commissioned into the U.S. Army. His goal in the Army, he said, is to secure some sort of leadership position in order to give back to the community that helped shape him.
“Seeing that I could really make a change was really what fueled me. I want these people to know that just because your life was something prior to the military doesn’t mean it is what it is because I know that wasn’t the case for me,” said Andrews.
When asked if he had a message to youth who were experiencing similar setbacks to the challenges he undertook, Andrews said: “Nothing is set in stone. Just because you’re born into a bad home doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Just because you’re struggling with something now doesn’t mean it’ll always be the case.”