NavWeek: The Time of the Ancient Mariner (Part 2)


This is the second part of a two-part series of articles on Adm. Robert Papp, who ends his tour this week as commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. Here's part one, in case you missed it: NavWeek: Time of the Ancient Mariner.

After decades of sea life – captaining U.S. Coast Guard vessels in service of his country, Robert Papp was ready for a break – maybe even retirement. But then the Coast Guard brass asked him to be the commanding officer of its iconic ship, the training barque Eagle.

He went home to wife Linda, who was as exhausted with the sea life as he. “They want me to do another ship now.”

The Papps struggled with the decision. And then they decided, “OK, let’s take it on. We’ll do the best we can.”

The dream ship turned into another dream job. He traveled the world, representing the nation and the Coast Guard with the most impressive sailing ship in the U.S. fleet, training a generation of service cadets.

“I did three years on the ship,” he says. “At the end of the tour, I figured: I’ve achieved the ultimate in being a sailor. I’m a captain. I’ve got 24 years in the service.”

Indeed, Papp was named the 13th Gold Ancient Mariner of the Coast Guard, an honorary position held by an officer, with the earliest date of qualification as a cutterman and over ten years of cumulative sea duty.

Time to retire? Again, the brass had other ideas. It was time, instead, for another inflection point. 

The Coast Guard wanted him to do congressional affairs. But he knew nothing about that world. Exactly the point, they said. What he did know about was the Coast Guard and the service needed someone who could articulate the service’s needs in Washington.

It was 1999 and the Coast Guard was trying to find a political anchor for the coming century.

“I said, ‘You know what. That would probably be a good job to do before I retire. It will help prepare me for a job outside the Coast Guard. I took it on.”

And he found he loved it – and he was good at it.

“What I discovered was one of my small few competencies was that I could take complex issues, simplify them and explain them to people,” he says. “Congressmen and congressional staff want to understand topics. But too often, people in the military tend to talk in terms that politicians and staffers who have never lived that life don’t understand.  And it works both ways. I could take issues and explain [them] to Congress to congressional staff. And when they gave me their side and political terms I could articulate that to admirals and captains at Coast Guard headquarters.”

Nearly a couple of years later, he was thinking about that South Carolina lot again. Then came Sept. 11, 2001.

“That shook my world,” he says.

I was a product of the baby-boomer years,” he explains. “We had always been raised going through the nuclear attack drill and going to the fallout [shelter]. I was thinking the Cold War is over. My kids are going to live free of threats. On 9-11 we failed. My kids are not going to live in a world [in which] they are free of the fear of an attack on our country.”

It was another seminal moment. He made a decision. “I recommitted myself to the Coast Guard. I would continue to work as hard as I can until they tell me it’s time to go to go home.”

His admiral selection came in the summer of 2002. Ok, he figured, one job at a time. He was just happy then to keep serving.

When he was made chief of staff and promoted to vice admiral in 2008 under Adm. Thad Allen, who was then commandant, Papp first started to entertain the thoughts that he could wind up with the top job.

“I spent my time working directly for the commandant, running all of the programs,” Papp says. “It was really a substantial job. I started looking at Adm. Allen and thought, ‘Gee, I could do that job.’”

Allen sent Papp to be the commander of the Atlantic area, another choice job that would groom him even more for the top post.

“I said, ‘I’ve got two vice admiral jobs now,’” Papp says. “I’m one of the people who the secretary is going to look at when they decide who next commandant is going to be.”

Others agreed. Papp’s inner circle told him, “When Adm. Allen retires, you’re going to be one of the ones under consideration.”

He replied, “Yeah, but I also could be retiring in a couple of years. I’m going to be conducting my job as Atlantic Area commander so I get the most [out] of my job, because I enjoy being an operational commander and I want to have no regrets if I have to retire.”

The group became known as the “no-regrets gang” and its members vowed to kick him in the butt if he ever started playing politics or campaigning instead of running the Atlantic force.

“They never had to,” he says. Instead they pushed him to do more to lobby for the commandant’s job.

Papp never thought he was entitled to the position – but he knew some of the things he wanted to do if ever got it.

He wanted an aviation-safety review. He wanted to finish some of the restructurings started by other commandants. But most of all, he wanted to steady the service, which was off keel from years of uncertainty and change.

Aviation-safety concerns were particularly pressing. The gold standard was showing lots of rust, he noticed as he commanded the Atlantic Area.

“All of a sudden across the Coast Guard we start having major aviation mishaps,” he says. “Eleven deaths. I was trying to find out what was going on. Are we giving you too much to do? I saw the aviation community going down the road the afloat community had 30 years earlier, but it wasn’t getting too much attention. We found a lot if was complacency and a failure to follow established doctrine.”

When he became commandant, he brought together all of his admiral-level senior aviators and told them: “I want to do a safety stand down for aviation across the Coast Guard. I want to do inspections. I want to get everyone’s attention. We cannot continue down the path we are going.”

But his senior aviators resisted. “Let us handle this,” they told him. “We can get to the bottom of this.”

They proposed a study. It made sense.

“A couple of weeks later I get a call in the middle of the night,” Papp recalls, a catch in his voice.  “Helicopter 6017 had crashed. A newly renovated H-60 was being brought up to Alaska and a fresh crew had picked it up in Oregon and 41 minutes later it crashed. It was the worst night I had had in the Coast Guard. I held myself personally accountable. I am left wondering to this day if we had done that stand down would we have gotten those people’s attention and perhaps averted this.”

Under Papp’s direction, the Coast Guard developed an aviation safety plan. Since then, he boasts, the service has had only one crash, a training mission near Mobile, Ala., in which the pilots hit a fog bank.

“I’m very impressed with the way the aviation community has proved itself,” he says.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard’s sea force was also experiencing accidents again. “The worst,” he says, was when “we had a boat crew in San Diego harbor that was responding to a case and they ran over a civilian boat and killed an 8-year-old child.”

Something had to be done. “We were losing our focus on mission performance, which had been our strength. One of my goals as commandant was to focus again on mission excellence.”

Another goal was to recapitalize the service, especially the cutter fleet, which was no easy task with ever-tightening budgets and other constraints.

The Coast Guard has fiscal 2015 money planned for its eighth security cutter and it is getting ready for a down-select on its offshore patrol cutter, the medium-endurance cutter replacement. The service has 30 new patrol boats and Papp thinks it will get all 58. Even the icebreaker Polar Sea is returning to service.

Papp sees aviation as the next big challenge. “We’re doing an reevaluation of fixed wing needs,” he says. “We’ve got another dozen years before we face a challenge for helicopters.”

For Papp, though, his biggest accomplishment as commandant was to steady the service.

When he took over, the Coast Guard was still in disarray from incomplete strategic, organizational and operational reorganizations begun by previous administrations that never got the necessary Congressional support.

“Congress, in my estimation, was unwilling to give us the authorization,” Papp says, “because every commandant comes in and changes something and we have to change the laws.”

During his confirmation process, Papp made it clear his number-one goal was to steady the service by completing the reorganizations. “They’ve been sucking the institutional energy out of my people. It is manifesting itself in operational performance issues. What this service needed was four years of a steady hand on the helm, steering a course that’s laid out and not deviating from it unless we really have to. I wanted to settle on the course and get people to think like Coast Guardsmen again. It was cultural. I promised [Congress] I would do no major changes.”

Right after Papp was confirmed, Congress came through with the authorizations needed to complete the reorganizations.

In many ways the reorganizations really amounted to a reaffirmation of the unique culture of the Coast Guard.

What Papp did not want was to be a mini-Navy or a glorified sea police. “We had heard them before – ‘Smokies of the Sea, The Lifesavers, Multi-mission Military Maritime’ – I didn’t want any slogans,” he says.

“We’ve already got the world’s best Navy,” he says. “There is a purpose for the Coast Guard, which stands on its own. We don’t need the Navy for affirmation. We are a different animal. We both go to sea. But we have independent missions.”

The Coast Guard’s mission, he says, can be best categorized as “maritime governance,” or the “day-to-day operations on the sea -– security, safety, facilitation of trade.  If you trace it back to the beginnings of the country, it’s exactly what Alexander Hamilton was talking about” when he proposed the creation of what eventually would become the Coast Guard.

Hamilton, Papp points out, noted the U.S. needed a Navy, but was too poor to have one. But a Coast Guard was necessary right then. “One of the acts of the first Congress was the tariff act of 1790, which authorized construction of 10 cutters, written by Alexander Hamilton and signed by George Washington.”

The Coast Guard has anchored U.S. security since then. The service is more diverse and better than ever, Papp contends.

“Today … some of the old-timers say things aren’t as good as they used to be,” Papp says. “They’re right. They’re better. The old-timers can’t conceive of a Coast Guardsman hanging out of a helicopter, chasing a go-fast boat with a marksman taking out outboard engines. The potential for disaster is huge. You’re shooting out engines on a boat where there are people just a few feet away. You’re traveling at vary rapid rate of speed in uncertain conditions at sea.”

He says, “We’re sending boat crews out in the middle of the night doing very high tempo law enforcement operations. When we started doing boardings when they expanded the 200-mile limit, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. We‘re strapping on leather holsters and belts left over from World War II with 45s and putting on wet suits.”

Now, he says, “We train our people in use of force procedures and how to use technical means for detections and how to appropriately conduct a law enforcement boarding. We’ve got schools for that. The professionalism is way above what it was when I came in 40 years ago.”

And for this Ancient Mariner, there could be no greater legacy.

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