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New London — The Coast Guard may stop escorting submarines on the Thames River.
Coast Guard Station New London's focus will change in fiscal 2014, Lt. Todd Hartfiel, the outgoing commander of the station, said Monday.
During the ceremony in which he turned over command of the station to Lt. Dan Tavernier, Hartfiel said the station is shifting from predominantly ports, waterways and coastal security missions to perhaps more traditional maritime law enforcement roles.
"I wish I could be a part of that change," Hartfiel said as he bade farewell to his crew in an emotional speech.
Several times Hartfiel stopped speaking to take a deep breath and wipe tears from his eyes. He said after the ceremony that it was difficult to say goodbye because the 62 service members and 19 reservists assigned to the station have become his family.
He also said that given the fiscal challenges and the station's numerous missions, the Navy could escort its own submarines, as it did before Sept. 11, 2001.
Since the terrorist attacks, the Coast Guard has provided security escorts to a variety of Navy vessels transiting the region's waterways. About 200 vessels traveled through the area each year during Hartfiel's tour and the station escorted all of them.
"We're getting back to what we normally do in the Coast Guard," Hartfiel said.
Capt. Joseph M. Vojvodich, the commander of Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound who oversaw the ceremony, said in an interview that he is working with the Navy and Coast Guard Headquarters to continue to meet the overall objective of ensuring the waterways are safe.
It will still take a few months, Vojvodich said, to sort everything out, but "the Navy is going to take on some additional roles and we're going to help them get to that point."
"We have high-value units moving through the Thames River. We want to make sure they're in a great position and we don't want to jeopardize the public," he added.
The station is responsible for a 360-square-mile area and 75 miles of rivers. Along with providing security to naval vessels, the station coordinates massive public events with local governments, helps ensure civilian and commercial vessels are safe and provides security for critical local infrastructure, including Electric Boat, the Naval Submarine Base and the Gold Star Memorial Bridge, Vojvodich said.
Hartfiel led the crew as it responded to Superstorm Sandy and protected spectators on more than 4,000 boats during Operation Sail 2012.
"Todd, your outstanding commitment to your people and your tasks as the Station New London commanding officer has earned you the respect, loyalty and admiration of those who served for and with you," Vojvodich told Hartfiel as he presented him with the Coast Guard Commendation Medal, gold star in lieu of a fifth award.
Hartfiel will next serve as the command center watchstander and support coordinator at the U.S. Fleet Forces/Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va.
Hartfiel thanked the partners he has worked with since taking command of the station in January 2011, the crew, and his family. Several officials from local police and fire departments and other Coast Guard units attended the ceremony.
"I must focus my attention on new horizons and I do so eagerly and with great confidence. That confidence comes, in part, from my own belief in what the Coast Guard does each and every day, protecting our families, friends and communities," he said. "It also comes from all I have learned and experienced with all of you. It has been a great ride and I am grateful for having had a front row seat."
Hartfiel and Tavernier exchanged salutes with each other and Vojvodich. Tavernier previously served as the chief of readiness and assessments at the Coast Guard's Deployable Operations Group in Arlington, Va. Vojvodich said Tavernier has a strong foundation of leadership and operational expertise.
Tavernier said Monday was one of the proudest days of his career, since the opportunity to be in command is "a great privilege," given to few members of the Coast Guard. He said he was excited, and a little nervous, for what lies ahead.