New London - Melissa McCafferty was dead set on working on shore for her first assignment after graduating from the Coast Guard Academy in May, that is until she spoke with Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. on Thursday.
To be an effective leader in a maritime service, Papp believes you must know what it is like to be on the rolling deck of a ship, cold, wet and tired, while doing dangerous missions for the good of the country.
Papp is the Coast Guard commandant, but he spent 14 years of his career at sea. He wants every academy graduate who is not headed to flight school to go to sea for two years before moving on to other jobs. He is concerned that the service has lost sight of its professionalism and its focus on seamanship and airmanship, given a recent spate of accidents.
"He was very genuine," said McCafferty, 22, of Michigan. "He said, 'You are my shipmate. To do the best you can, you need to understand what it's like to go under way.'"
McCafferty now plans to apply to go to one of the fast-response cutters, the next generation of Coast Guard patrol boats, after she graduates. Papp met with McCafferty and other cadets in leadership positions at the school before he gave the annual leadership address to the full student body Thursday night.
Papp opened his address with a video of the Coast Guard in action in places such as Haiti and the Middle East. It was the antithesis of the videos Navy Capt. Owen Honors showed to his crew.
In a week when Honors was relieved of his command of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise for producing a series of raunchy videos, Papp said that leaders "don't sink to the level of the lowest common denominator."
"Leaders make people rise above their own personal expectations and inspire them to higher performance," he said in an interview. "And what he was doing, I think, he was lowering expectations and the performance level for people. That's the very easy way to go. It's much harder to raise standards, and I think anybody worth their salt as a leader will set high standards, high expectations and try to inspire people."
Thursday, Papp inspired the next generation of Coast Guard leaders. He explained - phrase by phrase - the meaning behind taking what he called the "sacred" oath of office and receiving a commission.
An officer is a servant of the people, or a "servant-leader," Papp said, and the oath is their "bond to the American people." He graduated from the academy in 1975.
"You're young. You still have much to learn, and learning involves making mistakes and learning from them," Papp said. "Why should the nation bestow upon you the high responsibility of protecting its sons and daughters and indeed the nation itself when you still have so much to learn? Well, the answer is simple. You have answered the call. You cadets, you officer candidates, you men and women in this room represent the very best of what our nation has to offer."
Papp gave a similar talk in a leadership course for cadets more than 30 years ago, as a young lieutenant assigned to the academy. When he became the commandant, a graduate of the Class of 1981 e-mailed him.
The now-retired officer said that Papp's lesson about the oath was his most significant experience at the academy because it reminded him why he was there.
After Thursday's speech, Papp invited anyone who wanted to talk to him to stay. A long line of cadets formed, eager to shake his hand, snap a picture or ask a quick question.
"I don't think I've ever seen a commandant stay after to shake our hands," McCafferty said, after she thanked Papp and showed him her notes from the question-and-answer session.
'A regular guy'
Papp took charge of the Coast Guard in May from Adm. Thad W. Allen, a larger-than-life figure whose legacy includes leading the response in the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the recent oil spill.
Papp inspires in his own way. Even though he is the only admiral in the Coast Guard, Papp seems like "a regular guy" who can connect with those he leads, no matter the age, rank or rate, said Lt. Cmdr. Jorge Martinez, executive officer on the Coast Guard barque Eagle.
"Sometimes people like to blow smoke and say what they seem to think is right, but they don't come off as authentic," Martinez said after Papp visited the Eagle on Wednesday. "He says what he means and he means what he says. He just has an aura about him of trustworthiness, authenticity and honesty that really appeals to me."
As 2011 begins, Papp is facing a constrained budget and aging equipment, which he says will require nearly daily decisions about priorities. The historic repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law means that homosexuals will soon be allowed to serve openly in the Coast Guard and throughout the rest of the military.
"Our core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty are applicable to all people who are serving in the Coast Guard," Papp said in an interview. "I couldn't tell you whether there are gay or lesbian people serving in the Coast Guard. I suspect there are. But they shouldn't have to lie about their sexual orientation and should be given the opportunity to serve openly if they choose to, and not have to live in fear."
This change may be the biggest one ahead for the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard took on new security missions after Sept. 11, 2001, and increased the size of the force, putting stress on the training centers, Papp said. Previous commandants began initiatives, yet to be finished, to reorganize and modernize the service.
"The easiest thing for me would be to change things the way I would like them, but that would upset the service once again," said Papp, who instead has promised to "steady the service" by completing many of the unfinished initiatives rather than ushering in more change.
Allen wanted to make the Coast Guard "change-centric," Papp said, while his focus is on making the Coast Guard "change- capable."
Martinez gave Papp credit for resisting the temptation to start fixing every broken thing he may have noticed in more than three decades in the Coast Guard.
"He knows we need stability," Martinez said, "and he's making us a better service."