Everyday Heroes - October 2018
As a young teenager in the 1970s, Kenton County Police Officer Charles Duncan described himself as a mischievous kid, earning the moniker, “Daredevil Charlie.” His mischief also earned him a unique relationship with local authorities.
“The reality of my involvement with law enforcement began in the early 1970s, when the Lee County, Fla. sheriff, Sheriff Wanica, told me I was either going to spend time in one of his jail cells or I was going to become a deputy,” Duncan said.
The sheriff and several deputies took Duncan under their wings, despite his proclivity for sometimes-reckless adventure, and Duncan became fond of them. As he neared graduation from high school, Duncan said he was unsure what he wanted to do in life. He decided to reach out to the sheriff about a job.
“He said he’d love to hire me as a deputy, but they wanted me to be at least 21,” Duncan said. “And he said, ‘Why don’t you think about joining the military, becoming an MP (military police), and then when you get out, you can apply, and I’ll hire you.’”
Duncan took the suggestion to heart, but didn’t act on it right away. One Saturday morning he found himself on the courthouse steps, and the Marine Corps recruiting office across the street caught his attention. The typical 70s teen, Duncan said he walked into the office with hair to his shoulders and asked about joining the marines.
“The next thing you know, I’m talking seriously about joining the Marine Corps,” he said. “The recruiter didn’t pull any punches, he told me how hard it was going to be. I was 6 foot, 129 pounds, I figured that was going to be a rough road. So, the Marine Corps enlisted me and in July 1973, I went to Parris Island, S.C. for boot camp (at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot).”
Duncan graduated boot camp as a private first class, an achievement he was very proud of, and found himself instantly in love with the Marine Corps. He joined a marine fighter squadron as an aircraft weapons specialist.
“I loved it, and I worked hard,” he said. “The next thing you know, four years had gone by. I had spent 17 months aboard the USS Nimitz, I had done shakedown crews aboard the carrier. I had been to the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic, and I had been aboard three other aircraft carriers – the USS Forrestal, USS Independence and USS Saratoga during that timeframe. Shortly after that, I got on the USS America and the USS Kennedy, and did some work with them, but my force was aboard the Nimitz.”
Duncan became an arm/de-arm non-commissioned officer (NCO) and joined the Marines’ cross-country track team, practicing on the flight decks and racing other ships when they went ashore. During his time on the USS Nimitz, Duncan recalled an experience when he had to weigh the future of his military career with breaking rank and saving one of the world’s largest warships.
As a corporal not yet 20 years old, Duncan was working the flight deck when a Phantom jet collapsed, pinning a Navy sailor under its wing.
“As I was looking at it, jet fuel was going all over the flight deck, the aircraft had all of its bombs and rockets on it,” Duncan said. “I’m looking at the airplanes behind all of that and I can see the fuel vaporizing out of the cat, going back there getting sucked down intakes. There were people running around, and I recognized that the crash truck was in the back of all that, downwind from it. I noticed that the other small crash vehicle was also there, and the crane, which we called Tilley, was back there. And I thought that we had a Forrestal situation developing.”
In 1967, the USS Forrestal caught fire, killing 134 sailors and injuring 161. Duncan wasn’t about to let that happen again. He gathered a team of sailors and marines and drug out the firehoses.
“I made a decision to set up the fire station,” he said. “I thought about it for a second, I ran back up to the kid in the catwalk and I said, ‘Charge the firefighting system on my authority.’ He said, ‘Aye, aye,’ and boom, I put that ship into general quarters (a state of alert). I charged up the firefighting system on the entire ship. Thirty airplanes overhead had to bingo to the beach, they couldn’t land while we had to purge the entire firefighting system to clear all that stuff out. Then we had to restock the system before the ship could go back to normal operations.
“I went to what was called ‘captain’s mass,’ a little adventure standing in front of the captain,” Duncan continued. “I thought I was going to get (my rank) reduced and go to the brig, I really did. He told me the millions of dollars it cost the Navy, and when he got done, he asked me, ‘Corporal, what in God’s name were you thinking?’ I said, ‘I was thinking about saving my ship and my shipmates, sir.’”
The captain dismissed the charges against Duncan and took authority of the incident. As Duncan was leaving, the captain asked him if the same situation arose again, what he would do. Duncan simply replied he would charge the fire system and save the ship.
A year later, Duncan was back aboard the Nimitz and the same captain assigned him as the NCO in charge of arm/de-arm, a position normally assigned to marines with 18 to 20 years of experience, he said. When the captain was asked why he assigned Duncan to the position, Duncan recalled the captain saying, “Because that marine will make the hard decision and not worry about his career.”
What began as an opportunity to kill some time before aging into law enforcement turned into a 24-year military career, with stints in Miramar, Calif. running a Marine Aircraft Group squad, serving through the Gulf War, and finally serving as an embassy duty commander in both Seoul, Korea, and Cairo, Egypt. During this time, Duncan met his wife, Janet, and they had two children.
Duncan described his adventures and life as “absolutely awesome.” He rose to the rank of master gunnery sergeant, topping out at the Marines’ highest pay grade. In July of 1997, 24 years and 20 days after joining the Marine Corps, Duncan retired and began the pursuit of his next adventure – working for Comair Airlines.
Initially, Duncan took a job working as a flight instructor for the academy, but in April 1999, he was told he was going to airline training. He thought he might fly Brasilias, the airline’s smaller planes, he said. But Comair sent him to jet training, where he spent two months training in Louisville.
“The CR9 (a regional jet airliner) was the last plane I flew,” he said. “It was a great airplane and a great opportunity.”
Duncan was a pilot when two airliners were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Shortly after, he became a federal flight deck officer, credentialed to carry a gun while flying. He continued to fly until Comair shut its doors in 2012.
Not knowing where life might take him next, Duncan said he began thinking about working security somewhere. While taking a Carrying Concealed Deadly Weapons class, Duncan met a deputy sheriff who encouraged him to work security at the local hospital, St. Elizabeth.
“Some of the part-time security officers were guys from [Kenton County Police Department], who are here to this day,” Duncan said. “At the time I was talking to Greg Sandel, who used to be one of our captains, and I mentioned to him about my dream of law enforcement back in the 70s. He said, ‘Why don’t you apply with us?’ I said, ‘I’m too old, I’m almost 59 years old, you guys aren’t going to consider me in law enforcement.’ And he said, ‘We don’t have an age limit at the county.’”
Duncan applied, but he didn’t get his hopes up about acquiring the job, he said. He was convinced that at his age, there were surely better – younger – candidates. When he was called to take the written exam, he was surprised. He took the exam with what seemed like more than 100 other applicants. He expected that to be the end of the process for him, but it wasn’t. He was called to take the physical training exam.
“Two days before the physical fitness test, I tore the ligament in my big toe on my left foot, underneath the big toe,” he said. “I’ve got this boot I’m supposed to wear, and my wife said, ‘What are you going to do?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to go run the PT test.’”
Duncan told no one about his injury and completed the test. Ironically, he said the pushups hurt the most. But he passed.
“I got done, I shook everybody’s hands, I thanked them for the opportunity and I told my wife, ‘I finished those. From here on out, they’re going to be looking for these stellar young individuals who are out there, and the chief has to pick who he thinks is the absolute best out of his choice block. I’m just proud I got this far, I’m not going to feel bad if they don’t select me.’”
But he was selected, brought in for interviews and then given a conditional offer of employment. Duncan first thought someone was pranking him. But after realizing the offer was legitimate, he accepted and continued through the Peace Officer Professional Standards requirements for obtaining the job.
On the first of February, Duncan said he got a call that he would be going to the Department of Criminal Justice Training Basic Training Academy on Feb 9. He was sworn in as a Kenton County Police Officer two days after receiving the call and became a DOCJT recruit alongside fellow officers – some of whom were less than half his age.
Despite being asked to apply for a leadership position with his class, Duncan chose to lead from behind, encouraging his fellow recruits and allowing others the opportunity to pursue front-line leadership roles, he said.
Near the middle of his academy training, Duncan said his class began to hit a slump. Duncan became seriously ill, but refused to give up. He worked together with instructors and fellow classmates to keep up and regain his strength.
“We would finish training and I would be in bed,” he said. “I didn’t eat for the entire 14 days. I was that sick. I dropped 14 pounds.”
At the end of that period, motivation levels were low and Duncan could see the group needed a surge to push through to the end. For the first time, he chose to take the lead in physical training exercises – but he led Marine Corps style.
Duncan brought the class to attention and, with a booming voice he began, “Your next exercise will be side-straddle hops (a military term for jumping jacks)! Side-straddle hops will be a four-count exercise! I will count the repetition, you will count the cadence! Starting positions, move! Ready, exercise! One! Two! Three!
“And the voices escalated, and the motivation got pumped up,” Duncan continued. “And we got done with those simple 10 exercises and everybody was like, ‘Yeah!’ and it was just a spark.
“From that point forward they called them Duncan jacks,” he said. “So, every PT session, I had to lead that. Then other people started doing their exercises that way and we got more and more motivated. We had people come and watch us from the balcony. We bonded even more as a team. I’d love to say that was me who did that. All I did was take a moment that was needed and give that moment to them. They took the rest – the class, the leaders – everybody began to build on that one concept that we were a team.”
Roughly four years since his recruit class graduated, Duncan said many of them still share that bond they developed. As he nears the five year anniversary of his employment with KCPD, Duncan said his fellow officers often refer to him as a hobby cop.
“I have the advantage of being twice retired now,” he said. “I do this because I love working with people and I love working with these young guys.”
In his five years, Duncan has performed his patrol duties as well as picked up skills and training as an accident reconstructionist, written lesson plans for training, assisted with community projects and speaking events. Recently he has been working to get the agency’s new drone program off the ground. Duncan is working together with local, state and federal agencies – as well as the press – to form partnerships and be pro-active in all situations where the agency’s DJI Matrice 210 industrial drone could be useful.
Looking back on his career and the 40 years that passed before he fulfilled his law enforcement dream, Duncan said he wouldn’t change a thing.
“We are truly a product of everything around us,” he said. “I look back and question, like anybody does, ‘What if?’ And I always come back to ground zero that I am on the path that was destined for me. It has given me what I have right now. If I were to change anything, I would lose three (which equates to seven) of the most important things in my life. My wife, my two children and my four grandchildren.
“Could I have gone into law enforcement earlier?” Duncan continued. “Maybe. Maybe I would have made sheriff or gotten into politics. Who knows. But I’m where I’m supposed to be doing this.”
Duncan’s goal is to continue policing until he reaches 70 years old as long as he is “still physically fit and have all my faculties.” Working for Kenton County has been the closest thing for him to the brotherhood he enjoyed in the Marines, he said. Just as when he was a mischievous, long-haired 18 year old, Duncan said he doesn’t know what the future holds or what else God has planned for him.
“So I just keep going forward, having fun,” he said. “I’m enjoying this. I mean, I was going to buy a Camaro so I could drive fast, but now I don’t have to. I have a police car.”