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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 29, 2002

Coast Guard's top enlisted man deserved better

Military Update focuses on issues affecting pay, benefits and lifestyle of active and retired servicepeople. Its author, Tom Philpott, is a Virginia-based syndicated columnist and freelance writer. He has covered military issues for almost 25 years, including six years as editor of Navy Times. For 17 years he worked as a writer and senior editor for Army Times Publishing Co. Philpott, 49, enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1973 and served as an information officer from 1974-77.

By Tom Philpott

Without ceremony, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Vincent Patton III has stepped down after four years as the service's top enlisted member, leaving some friends and admirers grumbling that the man and the office deserved more.

Vincent Patton III will end his 30-year Coast Guard career Oct. 12 at Cape May, N.J. — right where it began.

U.S. Coast Guard

A change-of-watch ceremony for Patton and Master Chief Petty Officer Ja Good, the first woman picked to be senior enlisted of any branch of service, had been set for July 15 in Alexandria, Va. Hundreds were to attend including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. Speeches would recall Patton's 30-year career and note his achievements as the eighth master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard, and the first black man to hold the job.

But on July 9, six days before the scheduled ceremony, it was canceled. In a servicewide message, the commandant, Adm. Thomas H. Collins, said Good would not be installed as the service's top enlisted member because of unresolved personal issues which "have recently come to light."

In his message, Collins said, he sought to strike "a delicate balance between Good's right to privacy and the service's right to know."

The unresolved issues are rumored to be financial, and significant enough that Good was denied a secret security clearance required for the job. Her last assignment was command master chief for the Maintenance Logistics Command, Atlantic Area, in Portsmouth, Va. Good was on leave, awaiting reassignment, and declined earlier to speak to the press, an official said.

Patton's backers who are upset about the cancellation of the ceremony have said that he had argued internally against relaxing standards for the position, given the importance of the job and frequent interaction with service leaders. The master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard is the commandant's top adviser on quality of life and other issues for 36,000 active and reserve personnel.

Friends suggested Patton's refusal to support someone not fully qualified for the position might have led to cancellation rather than delay of the ceremony, thereby pushing Patton aside. He apparently will not participate in a change of watch ceremony once a replacement is named.

The command master chief of Coast Guard Headquarters, Charles W. Bowen, is serving as interim master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard.

Cmdr. John Fitzgerald, spokesman for Collins, said any perception of retribution toward the widely admired Patton is flat wrong. He said the commandant canceled the change of watch only because there was no one selected — and there won't be until mid-September — to become the ninth master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard.

"Master Chief Patton certainly was not denied a change of watch ceremony because of anything he's done," Fitzgerald said. "It's just a fact we don't have anyone to replace him with."

A new selection process is under way. Collins will announce his choice the week of Sept. 16. Patton, as planned, is on three months' terminal leave to begin seminary studies in California. He hopes to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.

In an interview before his departure, Patton said he was disappointed at first that the ceremony was canceled. Many friends and family members had plane and hotel reservations. But in the end, he said, he was satisfied with his own plan for July 15: to shake hands with as many of 2,300 people working at Coast Guard headquarters as he could find, "starting on the sixth floor and working my way down to parking level."

He declined to comment on why Good did not replace him or to confirm that he had refused to support relaxation of any selection criteria.

"I always learned to take the high ground," said Patton. "First thing you do is reach deep and pull out wonderful thoughts of people who have mentored you. The one that came to my mind was Alex Haley's 'Find the good and praise it.' "

Patton said he was best friends with Haley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Roots" who was a retired Coast Guard chief journalist. Haley died in 1992. A Coast Guard cutter is named in his honor.

In shrugging off the canceled ceremony, and in talking up the planned face-to-face marathon goodbye at headquarters, Patton said he wanted one last time to try to inspire service personnel.

Patton, 47, enlisted in June 1972. After seven years as a radioman, he switched to yeoman. While in service, he earned four degrees: a bachelor of arts in communications from Pacific College, Calif.; a bachelor of science in social work from Shaw College in Detroit; a masters in counseling psychology from Loyola University in Chicago and a doctorate of education from American University in Washington, D.C.

In 30 years, Patton said he experienced some racism.

"I once worked for a chief who thought the n-word was the best way to describe me," he said. "Oh, yeah, those were the early days."

Even as the senior enlisted person in the Coast Guard, traveling with Adm. James Loy who retired as commandant last May, Patton said he once "introduced himself to a couple of people and they asked me if I was the admiral's personal steward."

Some of that, he conceded, is why the master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard ceremony was important. He does plan a retirement ceremony Oct. 12 at Recruit Training Center, Cape May, N.J., where his career began. That event will be smaller and, he promised, end in an unusual way.

"I'm going back to the very spot my company commander (in 1972) told me to drop and give him 50 (push-ups) for being a smart ass."

When the speeches end Oct. 12, a company commander will step forward again. And Patton will drop, he said, "and give him 50."

Questions, comments and suggestions are welcome. Write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111, or send e-mail to: milupdate@aol.com.