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New London - Often, people have too narrow a view of what the Coast Guard does, Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. said Thursday.
Some watch Coast Guardsmen featured on the television show "Coast Guard Alaska" and think the Coast Guard mainly rescues people by helicopter, Papp, the Coast Guard commandant, said. Others hear about operations in the Caribbean and they think the Coast Guard stops migrants from entering the country illegally.
"There are times where people even question the need to have a Coast Guard," he said in an interview. "There are times when they say, 'Why does the Coast Guard need to be doing aids to navigation? Why does the Coast Guard need to be doing this law enforcement thing?' And unless they understand the history and how we came together, they just have difficulty comprehending that."
To better tell the Coast Guard's story, Papp, as the head of the Coast Guard, has supported building a National Coast Guard Museum in New London and asked the Coast Guard Academy to create a mandatory course on the service's history.
He visited the class on Thursday. Today, he will take part in the announcement of the museum's site.
The museum will be a place to "wrap together" the multiple missions, Papp said, "in a comprehensive display and storyline that will help to educate and inform the public, and I think, hopefully generate even better support for the Coast Guard." He envisions cadets in the history course visiting the museum to see the artifacts they're learning about and Coast Guardsmen visiting to reflect on their service.
Richard Zuczek, the senior historian at the academy who created the course, said many people don't understand the history of the Coast Guard because it's confusing. Unlike the other services, the Coast Guard is an amalgamation of five formerly distinct federal services.
The museum and the course will help tremendously, he said, because people will be able to put the pieces together. The course is new this school year.
Jennifer Melendez, a freshman cadet from New Jersey, talked at length about the history of the Coast Guard's ice operations during Thursday's class. Before the course, she said, she knew the basics about some of the service's notable figures but little else.
These topics, she said, are not something high schools normally teach.
"Without understanding where we were as a service, we can't really understand where we're going or where we are," she said.
She was excited about the prospect of a museum, which will "open the eyes of the public to what the Coast Guard actually does as a service, and kind of bring us more in the forefront and put us up to par with the other services," she said.
The Coast Guard is the only military service that does not currently have a national museum. Papp said he wants to take Coast Guard artifacts out of storage.
Two years ago, his wife, Linda, found in shrink wrap in an attic at the academy the chairs that Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush had used during a summit in 1988 on Governors Island in New York, where there once was a Coast Guard base. Brass plaques on the chairs displayed the leaders' names.
"Those ought to be in a museum, and they will be," Papp said.
Now that the plans are moving forward, Papp said, he's anxious because he wants the museum to be a success. He said he still may be able to achieve his goal of participating in a groundbreaking ceremony before his post ends in 2014.
The National Coast Guard Museum Association still has to raise the rest of the money to build the museum, which is expected to cost $80 million to $100 million depending on some of the design choices.
"I love the Coast Guard and I want to see the Coast Guard's story told. And this is a means to do it," he said. "I think it's like any time you take on anything that's new and exciting and has potential obstacles along the way, you feel a little bit of anxiety and anxiousness, but that's just healthy."