Shipmate of the Week – ADM Bob Papp
Posted by LT Stephanie Young, Friday, May 30, 2014
It was 1958 when a Korean War veteran settled into post-war life with his family at a farmhouse in Connecticut. He found work as a state trooper and converted the bottom of his farmhouse into apartments for extra income. In 1960, a Coast Guard ensign and his wife moved into the apartment. The Korean War veteran had a son who became fascinated with the Coast Guard and was invited to sail overnight aboard the ensign’s ship, Coast Guard Cutter Owasco.
The boy was just in second grade but after that night, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life – be a ship’s captain. Fast-forward five decades and not only did he take command of ships at sea, he would stand watch at the helm of the entire maritime service.
The boy was Adm. Bob Papp, who assumed the duties of 24th commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard on May 25, 2010. As commandant, he led 57,000 active duty, reserve and civilian Coast Guardsmen and more than 30,000 Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers to provide maritime governance for the nation.
Through the Commandant’s distinguished career – spanning 39 years, he served aboard six Coast Guard cutters, commanding four, Red Beech, Papaw, Forward and the training barque Eagle. The lessons he learned during his tours at sea hold a great deal of importance to the Commandant, and along with leading the Coast Guard, he also holds the title of 13th Gold Ancient Mariner of the Coast Guard, an honorary position held by an officer who has held the qualification of a cutterman longer than any other officer.
Some of the Commandant’s more memorable moments of his service occurred at sea and his most vivid was during operations off the coast of Haiti in 1994 during Operation Able Manner. He served as commander of a task unit during the Coast Guard’s largest rescue operations since World War II.
“I was down there in the Windward Passage commanding Forward and as commander of the task unit at the time,” recalled the Commandant. “Then Operation Uphold Democracy was installed and that’s, of course, in the middle of mass migrations. Immediately the task unit grew into a dozen or more cutters. Dozens or more aircrafts and boats, all there to support the operation.”
As the multi-national ships came together seamlessly, it heightened the Commandant’s awareness of the depths of professionalism that existed within Coast Guard crews in addition to how valuable proficiency is when crews are put to the test; a proficiency he later emphasized as critical to mission execution in his role as commandant.
In addition to proficiency, the Commandant’s focus through his tenure was on steadying the service and recapitalization efforts in a tough budget environment. He led the recapitalization of an aging Coast Guard fleet of cutters. His efforts achieved funding for the acquisition of all eight national security cutters, new fast response cutters and initial funding for the offshore patrol cutter, as well as restoring the nation’s only heavy icebreaker, Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star. This work provided the capital assets the Coast Guard needs to protect the nation for decades to come.
“Those are things that a commandant needs to look at,” said the Commandant. “They need to look at the service and say what do we need 10, 20, 30 years from now. You’ve got to have a vision and you have to keep driving towards that even if people are telling you to fold.”
Along the way, the Commandant had countless mentors who inspired and motivated him. But there was one person who was not only there for him, but also, as he says, “made me a better man.” That person was his wife, Linda.
“Linda has made all the difference in my career,” said the Commandant. “There’s no way I am here in this position today without Linda Kapral Papp.”
“As I’ve told many people throughout the years, family is much more important than your work and vocation,” added the Commandant. “The Coast Guard goes away for everybody in life, and you’ll want to make sure that family is there when it’s over.”
For the Commandant, that end of active duty service has come. But his passion for the Coast Guard will not wane as he sets his sights on ensuring Coast Guardsmen remember their roots.
“I want future generations to understand the history of our service and how deeply intertwined we are with the history of this country going back two centuries,” said the Commandant.
His passion for our service’s history led to an establishment of Coast Guard history courses at the service’s inflection points and his championing of a national Coast Guard museum.
“Our story need to be told and we deserve a world class museum,” said the Commandant. “We’re on the verge of getting that now and I’m really pleased we’ve stayed the course on that for the last four years. I know that our service doesn’t survive on cuttermen alone. We have to have that breadth and diversity that all the mission sets bring and all the people who support us getting the mission done bring. It starts with history. It starts with where we come from.”
The Commandant’s calling to be part of this history of service began aboard Owasco on an overnight sail more than 50 years ago. Owasco, roughly translated from a Mohawk and Iroquois term, means “crossing.” The decks of this now-decommissioned ship lived up to its namesake as it became the crossing that led a boy to find his life’s calling; a crossing that led a second grader to follow his heart to one day lead America’s Coast Guard.