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Retiring Coast Guard commandant looks back

Papp reflects on 39 years of service

May. 31, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
The Coast Guard Defines its Identity
The Coast Guard Defines its Identity: Groundbreaking of the New Coast Guard Museum a conversation with Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., John Johnson, treasurer of the National Coast Guard Museum Association Inc. and the Council President & Chair Wade A. Hyslop, Jr. Story by Lars Schwetje
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Adm. Robert J. Papp sits for his final interview as Coast Guard commandant with Navy Times on May 9 before his retirement at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Mike Morones / Staff)

If you ask the outgoing Coast Guard commandant, he’ll tell you that he never thought he’d make it to the top spot. He’ll also say holding the job is the highlight of his 39-year career.

“I’ve got at least three or four inflection points in my career where I knew that I was getting out and retiring,” Adm. Bob Papp told Navy Times in a May 9 interview. “Something would happen, I’d stay on for a couple more years, and just one thing led to another.”

Opportunity after opportunity came his way, culminating in his appointment to four-star in 2010.

“At each stage of your career, you get to take on additional responsibilities,” he said. “So, to eventually get to the point where you’ve got responsibility for everything that the Coast Guard does, it’s just a tremendous honor.”

As he prepared for his May 30 retirement, Papp sat down with Navy Times in his office at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., to talk about his career and the challenges ahead for the service he is leaving. Answers have been edited for brevity.

Q. What are some of the highlights in your career?

A. I think that probably one of the biggest operational highlights was as a commander. I was captain of the cutter Forward. We were down doing a Haitian migration operation in the Windward Passage. In the mid-’90s we went through back-to-back mass migration of Haitians, then of Cubans, and then of Haitians again. I happen to be down there in the Windward Passage when President Clinton decided that they were going to invade Haiti, and reinstate the legally elected president, President [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide. I [went] down there when the invasion plans started. I eventually had about 12 Coast Guard cutters working for me, assorted aircraft, etc.

And then by the time that the Department of Defense had organized and gotten ready for the invasion, and the fleet came down, I chopped all of my Coast Guard forces to the Navy commander, but of course still directed the Coast Guard forces, so I mean — to be in a place where the eyes of the world are upon you, and there’s potential for things to go badly, that was pretty special.

Q. What do you think are some of your biggest accomplishments as the top Coast Guardsman?

A. The shipbuilding program, clearly. There were a lot of naysayers, and people who predicted that we would have to drop out of it, or we wouldn’t have gotten all of the ships that we’d set out on. That was one of my highest priorities, to get those ships built because we had to replace the aging fleet.

Four years earlier, I was told that I’d probably have to be satisfied with only four national security cutters, and then with five and with six, and they even zeroed out seven and eight during one of the year’s budgets. Here we are now with the money for No. 8 in the budget that’s on [Capitol] Hill, right now. I’m confident that we’ll get all eight national security cutters.

Q. Do you think the incoming commandant, Adm. Paul Zukunft, will keep that momentum going?

A. Oh, I think that he will come in with brand-new energy. He’s been involved in these projects in previous assignments in Coast Guard headquarters. He knows the importance of them. Truth be known, I might be running out of a little steam right now. I don’t think so, but it has been a long four years.

Q. The Coast Guard has 11 statutory missions. Would there be any value is scaling back, say, buoy-tending responsibility in favor of something else?

A. Not at all, because that same buoy tender that’s, let’s say, working aids to navigation in Chesapeake Bay can be called upon to break ice. [It] can be called upon to deploy down to the Caribbean if we have a mass migration and be holding platform for migrants. It can be sent out into a law enforcement mission. So, we get a lot. It’s a force multiplier for us. That would be lost.

While we can’t cut any missions, what we’ve been doing is moderating and modulating our level of efforts within the missions. Any given day, drug interdiction may be our highest priority on one day or maybe migrant interdiction is another or fisheries or some other thing. That’s I think the beauty of this service, is the adaptability to move between those missions.

Q. In your final months, the service has cracked down on good order and discipline, going as far as barring re-enlistment for Coast Guardsmen with a variety of criminal reports or convictions against them. Where did that idea come from?

A. The idea about this came up early on when we were looking at these retention challenges that we were facing too much retention, and how do you keep a healthy flow of people going through your service because good people aren’t going to stay around if they don’t think that they can get advanced. So, we’ve done something in the career-screening panel, and what we found out was two things.

When I started out in the service, you sat down with the members of your crew as they were coming up and putting in a request to re-enlist ... and you review their record. Let’s see how you’ve been doing. Let’s see how hard you’ve been working. Have you been taking your end-of-course tests? Have you been doing this and doing that? You would get a recommendation from your commanding officer as to whether you should be re-enlisted or not.

Over time, people neglected it, took it for granted, and then we got to something called, “open-ended enlistments.” Part of that was just trying to save paperwork. What it took away was that periodic review of a person’s performance to determine whether they’re someone who we envision going on and doing great things.

So a couple of things came together. As we started looking at the career-retention-screening panel, we found out that because of these open-ended enlistments there were a lot of people out there who were sort of sneaking by doing some stuff that was really contrary to our culture and to our core values, and who were staying in the service and going on and sometimes causing us problems.

So the feedback that we got was: Give us a set of standards for the things at which we should be looking to determine whether a person should be re-enlisted. We did that. I don’t think that there’s anything that’s terribly onerous in there. I mean, I would think that the American taxpayers would want their Coast Guard people who are law enforcement officials to obey the law, to not come into work drunk, to not lie, cheat or steal or things like that. I think that it’s good for the service. Any good performer has nothing to worry about, so it’s just another tool for us to use.■

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