Honor, Respect, Devotion to Duty: Senator Sam Nunn


Long before Samuel Augustus “Sam” Nunn, Jr. was chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, he was a petty officer in the U.S. Coast Guard.

Former United States Senator Sam Nunn. Photo courtesy of Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Former United States Senator Sam Nunn. Photo courtesy of Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Nunn was recently recognized by the U.S. Navy Memorial with their Lone Sailor Award presented to sea services veterans who have distinguished themselves, drawing upon their sea service experience to become successful, in their subsequent careers and lives, while exemplifying the core values of honor, courage and commitment.

Nunn was recognized for a career of service to nation, particularly in the areas of national security and foreign affairs. Today, Nunn is co-chairman and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech and chariman of the board of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The Coast Guard caught up with Nunn at the award ceremony on Sept. 17 and asked him five questions about his time in the Coast Guard and how his service prepared him for success later in life.

What made you decide to join the Coast Guard?
I wanted to be in the Navy when I first went to Georgia Tech and the first test on the first day was an eye test and I flunked. So, at that stage, I decided to go three years to [Georgia] Tech and then go into the military.

I had taken Army ROTC for two years and one of my friends told me about the Coast Guard. The fact that you could go in for six months had a huge appeal to me. And, I served six and a half years in the [Coast Guard] Reserve [Force].

My father was a farmer and a lawyer in a small town in the middle of Georgia and he was very ill at that stage, or getting very ill, and I knew I had to be on the fast track. So, the six months, the fact that the Coast Guard training was so similar to the Navy which I had aspired to originally; all of that had a great appeal to me.

What do you remember most about your Coast Guard service?
Well, I loved Cape May and I enjoyed being right there on the ocean. I enjoyed the educational part of Boot Camp. I was a little surprised we did so much classroom work. I thought most of it would be physical but it was a good blend of both.

And, I also remember a lot of young men from either Philadelphia or New York, there weren’t many Southerners in that crowd, and one of the things I was struck by was how hard it was for a number of them to swim. And, they’d never been around water and so forth. But, I also recall that my chief petty officer was, I believe his name was Gillam, and his top assistant was Gibson, and I remember how much I liked the leadership of the Coast Guard.

I enjoyed the instruction. I enjoyed it as a learning experience. And, I love the idea of the Coast Guard in peace time being so active. You didn’t have to wait for a war and just train for getting in combat, you really had a tremendous role in peace time.

What are some of the highlights of your time in the Coast Guard?
Well, I have to confess; one of them was staying at Cape May after my first three months in Boot Camp and teaching the obstacle course and also teaching swimming, the basic swimming, as well as some life-saving courses.

And, I also played on the Coast Guard basketball team. That was a lot of fun. We played Fort Dix and a lot of Othe Army bases. And, I was not there for the whole season, I was there for the first half of the season because I got out in December.

But, all in all, it was just a great experience and most of all a learning experience and understanding how important it is for unit cohesion, for discipline, for the sense of integrity. All of those things were pounded home and I think they stuck with me really all of my career.

After your service, you went on to a successful career as a politician – a differen kind of public service. What skills did you acquire in the Coast Guard that helped you succeed in Congress?
I’d say discipline, focus, understanding how to get along with people that come from different cultures, different economic, different educational backgrounds; all of those things were very important.

Being prepared to sacrifice, understanding that credibility and honesty were the hallmark of trust and that trust is the hallmark of unit cohesion and unit cohesion is what makes the military units, whatever the size, effective. All of those things came through loud and clear.

So, when I got on the [Senate] Armed Services Committee a number of years later and then had charge of the manpower subcommittee, my first assignment for then-chairman [Senator John C.] Stennis, all of those experiences, and particularly enlisted experiences gave me a keen understanding of where enlisted people were coming from, how they were thinking, and what was so important about incentives, what about retirement, what about bonuses, all those things that are so important in making the volunteer Army work and the volunteer Navy work and the Marine Corps work and the Coast Guard work; all of that.

Because, when I came along we were in a draft period. By the time I was chairman of the [Senate] Armed Services Committee and by the time I was chairman of the manpower subcommittee when I first got to the Senate there was no longer a draft environment, it was after Vietnam. And, all of those experiences I’d had in the Coast Guard, particularly as an enlisted man, really helped me a great deal in understanding what it was going to take to make the volunteer force work.

The Lone Sailor is the namesake of the award you are being presented with and is a statue that has been reproduced in memorials all around the United States. The original is [in Washington, D.C.] outside the Navy Memorial and is a tribute to all personnel of the sea services. What does it mean for your name to be forever tied to this visceral tribute to the sea services?

Well, working with the U.S. military was the greatest honor of my Senate career. And, getting an award from the sea services and the Coast Guard in particular, where I served, is something I will always cherish.

This represents to me a tremendous evening, a great honor and nothing is more important to me than preparedness and the security of our Nation. And, the Coast Guard plays such a huge role in that.

So, to be honored by the service where I spent my time is an honor I will always cherish.


Do you know someone who embodies the Coast Guard Core Values of Honor, Respect, Devotion to Duty? Please submit your nominations using the “Submit Ideas” link on the right.

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