Guardian of the Week: Admiral Thad Allen

We’re bringing you the Guardian of the Week a few days early in recognition of the change of command ceremony that saw Admiral Robert Papp succeed Admiral Thad Allen as Commandant of the Coast Guard earlier today. Much has been said and written about Admiral Allen over the past several weeks, but we wanted to offer our own perspective as the 23rd Commandant of the Coast Guard is relieved of the watch.

Allen talks with two New Orleans evacuees in the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina. (Photo by Greg Henshall / FEMA)

Allen talks with two New Orleans evacuees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Greg Henshall / FEMA)

Admiral Thad Allen often refers to himself as “the unlikely Admiral.” Equal parts Mike Ditka (Allen was a linebacker for the Coast Guard Academy Bears) and Scotty from Star Trek (his M.I.T. intellect and passion for technology are well known), Allen appears more at home wearing working blues in the midst of a crisis than in service-dress blues on Capitol Hill testifying before Congress. Yet, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it was Admiral Allen’s no-nonsense attitude and willingness to tackle the tough issues that justified both the stars on his shoulder and made him the obvious choice to be the 23rd Commandant of the Coast Guard.

“He performed magnificently in a crisis,” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told USA Today with respect to Allen’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. “Nobody could have done it better.”

The son of retired chief petty officer Clyde Allen, Admiral Allen’s ascension to the highest position in the Coast Guard could hardly have been foreseen when Ensign Thad Allen graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1971 but it makes sense when you look back on his career. Over 39 years of service, Allen has held nine operational commands at sea and ashore conducting missions to support America’s maritime safety, security and environmental stewardship interests. Along the way, he found the time to earn two graduate degrees – Master of Public Administration from the George Washington University and Master of Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a respected member of the international policy community and a regular at gatherings of the International Maritime Organization.

This portrait of Admiral Thad Allen, 23rd Commandant of the Coast Guard will hang in Coast Guard headquarters alongside those of his predecessors. Note the map of New Orleans on the wall and the Chief's cover on the sidetable commemorating Allen's role in the response to Hurricane Katrina and honoring his father's service to the Coast Guard. The portrait was painted by artist Michele Rushworth. (U.S. Coast Guard illustration)

This portrait of Admiral Thad Allen, 23rd Commandant of the Coast Guard, will hang in Coast Guard headquarters alongside those of his predecessors. Note the map of New Orleans on the wall and the Chief's cover on the sidetable commemorating Allen's role in the response to Hurricane Katrina and honoring his father's service to the Coast Guard. The portrait was painted by artist Michele Rushworth. (U.S. Coast Guard illustration)

“He’s just one of those guys,” said former Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral James Loy in a recent New York Times interview. “If the challenge is to take the hill, you get behind him and take the hill.”

Admiral Allen’s time as Commandant of the Coast Guard will be remembered for a fundamental shift in the way the Coast Guard does business and the way the world views the United States Coast Guard. Allen’s top priorities upon taking the job were to see through the replacement of the Coast Guard’s aging fleet to carry out an organizational modernization to better support operators on the front lines and to fulfill his vision of the service as a small, multi-purpose agency prepared to protect America’s maritime interests wherever they were at stake. This declaration of purpose was accompanied by a bold move to take back control of the development of the Coast Guard’s new fleet from defense contractors. Allen’s vision resulted in the closest working relationship between the Coast Guard and Navy since World War II and a leading role for the service in the battle against international piracy and terrorism.

“I have spent my entire life in the United States Coast Guard. I was born while my enlisted father, a Seaman on the deck force, was underway on a Coast Guard cutter. In 1967, I traded my dependent’s ID card for an active duty card when I entered the United States Coast Guard Academy. I have seen life from the junior enlisted ranks as a dependent, and I have been lucky enough to advance through the organization as an active duty officer.” – Vice Admiral Thad Allen during his confirmation hearing to become the 23rd Commandant of the Coast Guard

U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen, who is serving as the National Incident Commander, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, brief President Barack Obama about the situation along the Gulf Coast following the BP oil spill, at the Coast Guard Venice Center, Venice, La., Sunday, May 2, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen, who is serving as the National Incident Commander, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, brief President Barack Obama about the situation along the Gulf Coast following the BP oil spill, at the Coast Guard Venice Center, Venice, La., Sunday, May 2, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

While the policies Allen has put in place will impact the Coast Guard for years to come, his final months in service may be what the public most remembers. The Coast Guard’s swift response to the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of lives being saved. And, Admiral Allen’s appointment as National Incident Commander for the BP Oil Spill response in the Gulf of Mexico will determine the future of one of America’s most significant waterways – perhaps for decades.

However, for those who have served with him, they will remember the mentor and teacher who used challenging times to offer lessons in “bureaucratic judo” and advanced applied civics. They will also remember the example who left it all on the field after having told a group of junior officers in the early 2000s, if you are going to be a flag officer, you better know what you want to do with it.

It is for all of these reasons and for four decades of service that we honor Admiral Thad Allen as our Guardian of the Week on the day that he is relieved as Commandant of the Coast Guard. Fair winds and following seas Admiral.

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  • Mark R. Anderson

    Well Deserved