Commandant Adm. Bob Papp fields questions June 5 in his Washington office. (Mike Morones / Staff)
The Coast Guard reactivated high-year tenure this year and is making final determinations on how many retirement-eligible Coast Guardsmen will be forced to leave. On the bright side, it is expected to mean faster advancements for younger Coasties.
Commandant Adm. Bob Papp, in an exclusive interview with Navy Times, talked about not only high-year tenure, but also plans for a servicewide physical training program and the continued struggle to reduce sexual assaults.
Excerpts from the interview edited for space and clarity:
Q. What were your goals when you reactivated high-year tenure this year, and how long do you think it will be necessary to have it?
A. We have a lot of young people now who have joined the Coast Guard over the last four or five years, and because of our high retention at the top of the pyramid, it has been very difficult for them to advance. I’ve never seen it before like this in the Coast Guard. Where I will go to a unit, I’ll talk to a seaman or a fireman and say: “Have you put in for ‘A’ school?” and they say “Yes.” “How long have you been on the list?” “Three years, four years.” You can’t expect a young person to join and sit around for three or four years before they can become a petty officer. We like to see them advance. So that was our primary purpose, to get the flow going again. We are being a little more surgical with high-year tenure than last time; last time was in the late 1990s, and we went through a reduction in force, and we had to reduce by about 4,000 people quickly, and it was used rather bluntly. It was more like a meat cleaver.
This time we are being more surgical about it. First of all, we started looking at people who are already retirement-eligible, and if they have been languishing around at the 20-year point, or 22- or 23-year point, and they just haven’t advanced or shown no inclination for advancing and they haven’t reached those professional growth points, then we are going to ask them to retire and that will open up some space to start advancements for our younger people. And we’ll get a chance to look at the results this year, twist the dials a little bit for the next year, make adjustments. I have asked our personnel folks to look very carefully at rating-specific concerns to make sure we are not losing some talent.
Q: You have people waiting three years for “A” school. What has that done to morale?
A: They have been willing to wait. From a very practical point of view, the economy probably has something to do with it. But from my idealistic, optimistic point of view, I think people may come in the gates because they are looking for a job, but most of the people that I talk to are really psyched about what they are doing. They love the business of the Coast Guard, so they are willing to stay around and wait. But they are getting a little impatient in terms of the opportunities for advancement, so we are trying to free that up for them a little bit more.
Q. If the Coast Guard is shrinking, then you will need fewer people to advance, right?
A. The president’s budget has us shrinking, somewhat, but not shrinking to the extent that it makes it easier for us to just get rid of people, or whatever else. It’s a slight reduction. I don’t know how that will end up by the time Congress finishes looking at the budget.
Q. Do you know what that number is? Shrinking by how much?
A. The original president’s budget had about 800 people — most of that is made up of decommissioned units. But at the same time, we are bringing on other units as well. I’m worried about that; I certainly don’t want to lose any people. People, as you all know, are the most important part of the equation.
Q. Is it dependent on the budget whether you have to take more measures to cut Coast Guardsmen? Are you waiting on how HYT does?
A. It’s a combination of all of that. It’s the “where does the budget go?” because that sets our end strength on how many numbers we can keep, and then we have to see how does high-year tenure work this year.
If I have any regrets, it’s anytime you have to let somebody go who really wants to stay. That breaks my heart; on the other hand, right now that is the situation we find ourselves in. I would say to everybody: Work as hard as you can, behave yourself, keep your standards high, keep your enthusiasm up, and I think most of the people who adopt those attitudes will be fine.
Q. What were the recommendations of the Fitness Advisory Committee [tasked with evaluating an official Coast Guard physical fitness program]?
A. I would say that I’m a believer that people need to maintain personal fitness. Obviously, at all our accession points, we have certain levels of physical fitness that people have to demonstrate before they can become Coast Guardsmen, and there are certain segments of our service, whether it is the Deployable Specialized Forces, our boat crews, our law enforcement detachments, ... they all have regular physical fitness testing because of the demands of the job. How you apply those lessons to the remainder of the workforce is the challenge. You know for someone in Coast Guard headquarters that has got to drive an hour and a half to, and an hour and a half back, from work each day, how do you carve out time and try to get them fit as well? So that is the challenge I have given [Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Michael Leavitt]. I want to come up with something that is going to provide healthy people, lifelong fitness and health. I know that [the council is] looking at soliciting some units to do a test program, and I have been sitting and waiting anxiously to hear the results.
Q. Regarding sexual assault, why should commanders be part of the prosecution of sexual assaults when often the person accused of sexual assault is right there in the commander’s unit, and the commander knows them?
A. I am infuriated by the thought that we have anybody in my Coast Guard that lives in fear of another Coast Guardsman. I want to eliminate that. That is my goal. So ... how do you do it? If you want to effect any change in the Coast Guard, if you want to correct any problem, you’ve got to have your commanders on board. They have to be involved in the process; they have to have responsibility for it, and then you need to hold them accountable. I don’t think we have been doing a good job of that. I will take the blame, if nothing else. But if I thought that taking this responsibility away from commanding officers would help the situation, I’d be the first one to volunteer for it. But I am convinced in my heart, and in my mind, that the commanders are the solution to this.