Commuting through the city of Los Angeles is one of the worst things to do in the city of Los Angeles. Understandably, with a population of four million, it should come as no surprise becoming familiar with the window stickers on the car seemingly parked in front of you on the Interstate 405.
The traffic west of the bustling metropolis is less taxing on the stress levels and invites awe as steep grades of road and distant mountains lead you toward the city of Oxnard. Within the city, farms, marinas and residential communities surround a small Coast Guard Station in Channel Islands Harbor, nestled between Hobie Beach and Ventura County Harbor Department.
Although Coast Guard Station Channel Islands doesn’t have a white picket fence, for some, its called home. Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Penuel, a machinery technician assigned to Station Channel Islands Harbor, considers it to be his second home among three. His first home is where he resides with his wife and his third is at the airport in Camarillo, California, where he is currently in the process of earning his multiple engine pilot certification.
Some consider their workplace almost like a home due to the long hours spent consumed with reports and stale coffee. Although Penuel stays long after business hours mentoring his peers, it’s not the reason he refers to it as a home. Penuel is very much a member of an extended family at the station where he has earned the reputation of being a “consummate leader who humbly inspires his subordinates, peers and superiors,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Kevin Wyman, the Station Channel Islands Harbor officer in charge.
In April, Penuel won the 2018 Fireman First Class Paul Clark Boat Forces Engineer Award. The annual award recognizes an exemplary Coast Guard boat engineer who demonstrated sustained superior performance, proficiency of craft and leadership.
Every year, someone exemplarily wins this award. Normally, a commanding officer or a supervisor will select someone who they believe lives up to the namesake of Paul Clark, an enlisted Coast Guard hero who was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions during World War II. What makes this case different is that Penuel’s shipmate submitted his name for the award.
“Through his work ethic, ability to problem solve, his commitment to people and his desire to improve everyone around him, he’s truly the most selfless person I’ve ever worked with,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class John Rogers. “There is no way to pay back all of the selfless time and effort MK1 has contributed to myself, the station and the Coast Guard, so submitting him for this award was the least I could do to thank him for all he’s done.”
Some people may have a recreational vehicle in the driveway or maybe even a boat parked on a trailer in the backyard. Station Channel Islands has them beat with three boats including two 45-foot Response Boat-Mediums and a 29-foot Response Boat-Small where Penuel has accrued more than 500 hours of maintenance. In 2018, he also saved the Coast Guard more than $220,000 in labor costs and essential tool kits commandeered from a nearby naval base, which is comparable in price to some one-bedroom condos listed in Los Angeles.
Penuel grew up in Laredo, Texas, where he spent his weekends at the drag strip or in his uncle’s garage elbow deep in car engines. When he was 16, he worked full-time at a fast-food restaurant while balancing his time with schoolwork. Within a few years, he was working as the general manager when he realized he had no room left to grow. He chose to look past the shallow depths of the deep fryer and towards the opportunities of the Coast Guard.
“I kind of hit a plateau and I knew I had to do something else,” said Penuel. “It became so routine, it wasn’t a challenge.”
Initially when he joined the service, he had plans on becoming a health services technician. Although he has a background handling oily rags and engine blocks, he was hesitant on becoming a machinery technician in fear of spoiling his passion for working on cars. Those fears were put to rest after a tour aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Cimarron where he helped work on the ship’s engine while it was dry-docked. It wasn’t long after that when he realized his work and play could exist in the same space.
“I knew I enjoyed it as a hobby but wasn’t sure I would for work,” said Penuel. “After that first taste of getting my hands dirty on the engines in the Coast Guard, I thought to myself that this is it and I committed to it.”
In Channel Islands, Penuel keeps himself busy as a law enforcement instructor, engineer and a sought after leader. He organized a course that enabled 24 members of his team to complete all requirements for a 100-ton master’s license. He helped educate them on finances and volunteers after work to help his shipmates earn qualifications. Penuel prides himself on looking after the members of his extended family at the station.
“Being in a group that is constantly trying to take care of its people is pretty awesome,” said Penuel. “We take the initiative to look out for our people and make sure they are recognized.”
When he is not mentoring after hours at the station or spending quality time with his wife, he takes his aspirations to new heights without any fear of slowing down. So far, Penuel has logged more than 265 flight hours earning him a commercial pilot’s license for single engine aircraft and is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautics. Unlike a greedy sibling at the dinner table eyeballing the leftover lasagna, Penuel shares his knowledge and experience with his shipmates to ensure they are maximizing their potential.
“One of my biggest leadership philosophies is not to get comfortable,” said Penuel. “There are so many opportunities, especially in the Coast Guard, that’s afforded to the most junior members. It doesn’t make sense to sit around twiddling your thumbs.”
They say home is where the heart is, where we give our all for the ones we care for the most. We look after our families and try to protect them when they need protecting. We lend some words of advice, possibly some judgment and outstretch our arms when they need a helping hand. It’s what makes us family.
Penuel’s family, instructors and colleagues at home, at school and at Station Channel Islands Harbor know him to be a husband, a professional and a shipmate. A combination that requires commitment at each level and devotion long after the workday is done and before his head hits the pillow.