A Sea Change for the Coast Guard

Jun 23, 2010, 9:12AM EST
A Sea Change for the Coast Guard
The recent change-of-command ceremony at the U.S. Coast Guard signaled more than just a routine change of leadership. ADM Robert J. Papp’s term as Commandant will probably involve much more than that. That’s not necessarily good news for everyone, but it could mean real change within the most visible division within the DHS.

About eight years ago, ADM Thomas Collins relieved ADM James Loy as Commandant of the United States Coast Guard. As it turned out, it was a largely thankless job for Collins, who followed in the charismatic wake of one that branch’s most popular and competent leaders to ever hold the post. Thomas also had to deal with an emerging program called “Deepwater,” a task that the Coast Guard was then ill-positioned to handle, as well as several other messy issues. Simply stated, Loy was a tough act to follow. Fast forward to 2010 where ADM Robert Papp, tapped to lead the Coast Guard for the next few years, gets the unenviable task of following the man that the mainstream media has crowned the Coast Guard’s “Rock Star” and who also now serves as the President’s choice to oversee the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill crisis response effort. Allen will also be a tough act to follow, but that’s not the point of this editorial.
 
DHS and the Coast Guard presumably choose their leaders for any number of reasons, based on obvious criteria and some more subtle variables, as well. According to Papp’s official online biography, he proudly holds the distinction of being the fleet’s Gold Ancient Mariner as the Coast Guard’s longest serving cutterman in the officer ranks. In fact, Papp served aboard no less than six cutters; with command experience aboard four. The biography goes on to say that the honor “provides those under Papp’s command with a sense of confidence that their leader is in fact a man whose desk may be in Washington, D.C. but whose heart is underway with the men and women who go out and perform the Coast Guard’s missions every day.” His opening message to 42,000 active duty personnel underscored Papp’s fixation with the value of having seatime afloat within the service when he said, “We will set a course that: Steadies the Service, Honors our Profession, Strengthens our Partnerships, and Respects our Shipmates.” Soak in those metaphors, if you will.
 
In a blog posted online shortly after assuming command, Papp also sought to calm growing fears within the service that he might not hold those without seatime in the same regard with those who did. “There is no doubt that I value experience at sea, and sea duty in general. For me, that’s a core belief that will never change. Having said that, we’re a large, diverse service, and I appreciate anyone who wants to serve in the Coast Guard…heck, I even love aviators!” He added, “I think that ANY time on the water, in a row boat, sail boat, ferry, etc. is time well spent.” Just days after Papp takes the helm, however, his words probably have some Coasties who toil in numerous “non-maritime” missions more than a little nervous about their intended career paths. They might be justified in those sentiments.
 
In his most recent comments intended for the troops, Papp also brings light to the deterioration of the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety and Inspection programs from the perspective of industry. And, he goes on to say, “Sea duty, lake duty, river duty, time on the water…necessary? No, clearly not. Does it make us better? My opinion…yes.” Fair enough. But his comments and very clear mindset also appear to provide a continuation (and perhaps an enhancement) to a perception – rightly or wrongly deserved – that marine inspection and/or marine credentialing shops are dead end jobs within the service. Especially if you were not fortunate enough to have spent a bit of time driving boats within the last few years. That’s a problem.
 
At about the same time you read this column, another change of command ceremony will take place. The Coast Guard’s newly minted National Maritime Center (NMC) will pass from (Captain) David Stalfort’s capable hands into those of (Captain) Anthony Lloyd. Note that both individuals come and go as Captains. Stalfort will retire and Lloyd will dig in at a mission center that has become a lightning rod for criticism from outside the service, but also one that the Coast Guard has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at in order to get it right. In three year’s time when Lloyd moves on to something else, and assuming that he gets high marks for a job well done, one has to wonder whether that will translate into a flag billet from the ranks of NMC. It is a fair question to ask; though probably something I’m not even supposed to whisper.
 
In an interview with Stalfort just a few weeks ago, he told MarPro that he had no fears that the growing oil spill crisis in the U.S. Gulf would draw resources from NMC that might otherwise impede the apparent progress being made, as the Coast Guard tries to right its listing mariner credentialing program. He also admitted that one of the main reasons for this was that the greater majority of NMC personnel are civilian berths. Maybe that’s the way it ought to be.
 
To be fair, the Coast Guard has sunk an inordinate amount of time and effort in the past few years to get the credentialing and marine inspection piece back on course. At an STCW- mandated BST class taken at MITAGS last year, I was fortunate enough to sit next to a young (~ 25 y/o) Kings Point graduate with five years commercial sailing experience. He had only recently decided to join the Coast Guard’s marine inspection ranks. Scheduled to be posted to Rotterdam, he also showed himself to be competent and enthusiastic about his impending career change. More and more, the Coast Guard is reaching out to this demographic for expertise and experience.
 
I left Maryland at the end of that week feeling just a little bit better about where the Coast Guard is headed within that group. On the other hand, the growing trend of subbing out more and more of the meat and potatoes of the Certificate of Inspection (COI) and Tank Vessel Examination (TVE) work to the major classification societies is worrisome. Not because the classification groups are necessarily doing it wrong, but because with every passing year, the Coast Guard’s ability to be able to look over their collective shoulders to make sure, is eroding away. And if the situation in the Gulf of Mexico today (from the MMS perspective) isn’t at least a distant analogy to all of this, then I don’t know what is.
 
From (my) standpoint of a commercial ex-mariner and waterfront marine surveyor, I like Papp’s attitude regarding experience gained from the boots-on-the-ground perspective. As a journalist, I’m still digging the grime out from under my fingernails, but it also helps me to write about this kind of subject from an informed point of view. The Coast Guard’s marine credentialing and marine inspection groups could benefit from that kind of frame of reference. But how do you achieve that sort of experience when there are far too few seagoing billets for the complement who might like to sign on board? The demand for those cutter and field billets is likely to do nothing but expand in the short term, especially given the current leadership mindset and a workforce that now (apparently) thinks that they’ll need to have X, Y and Z in their personnel jacket if they want to get anywhere in that blue uniform, down the road.
 
ADM Papp, from the outset, appears to be a strong leader and one equal to the task of following the “Rock Star” Commandant who precedes him in that role. He’ll need to be. Having personally interviewed the last three Commandants at Headquarters, one-on-one, I particularly remember meeting ADM Allen for the first time. I took the time to read his BIO before conducting the interview and after seeing his photo, I promptly went out and got a haircut (time well spent, BTW). Behind the steely image is real substance; a no-nonsense guy who exudes and delivers competence.
 
Arguably, the Coast Guard’s future has very little to do with Thad Allen. ADM Papp’s real challenge will be to balance the need for real competence gained through experience with the realization that there are a bunch of Coast Guard missions that just don’t involve getting seasick as a job prerequisite. Those adjunct missions also need strong leadership. Today – and someone, please correct me if I am wrong – I am not aware of a single flag-rank Coast Guard officer who has spent as many (as little?) as three years toiling within (for example) the mariner credentialing division. And, if that’s the case, then perhaps the head job for these folks should be some sort of Senior Executive Service (SES) civilian posting.
 
Way back in 1981, I signed on as Third Mate for a six-month hitch on a Military Sealift Command fleet oiler. Naturally, it was pleasant work; performed aboard a vessel fitted out with luxurious and spacious accommodations. Also serving on board that cramped, decrepit, WWII-era tanker were about seven U.S. Navy Signal Corps personnel, who, for the most part operated the secure phones on the bridge and handled sensitive telex traffic; all from behind the cozy confines of a small, combination lock-secured radio shack. I was also made to understand – especially in terms of the Lieutenant and his Chief Petty Officer – that if you got assigned to hang out for an extended period with our motley merchant crew, it was quite possibly your last deployment in the Navy before they drummed you out. You have to wonder if that metric is a good analogy for a modern day, three-year deployment to NMC, or several other exciting, but equally vital missions within DHS.
 
Change is coming to the Coast Guard; in the field and at Headquarters on 2nd Street in Washington. These days, “change” seems to be “the new normal” for the nation’s fifth uniformed, military branch. Since 9/11, they’ve changed federal government departments, added a bunch of mission sets, radically changed a few more and set about modernizing (and properly funding) an arguably neglected, redheaded stepchild. Today, the Coast Guard finds itself once again at the epicenter of serious crisis in the U.S. Gulf. That’s the most visible manifestation what’s on their collective plate. But, there’s much more.
 
Newly installed Coast Guard Commandant ADM Robert Papp clearly has his eyes and hands on the ball. What he does with it once he crosses center court is just as important as the Coast Guard-coordinated response to the most significant environmental event of this generation. The Coast Guard’s complement of 42,000 men and women know it only too well. Now, so do you.
 
Filed under: Coast, Commandant, DHS, Guard, USCG
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