Written by Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp.
Shipmates, as we travel through life it is important to have trusted means of navigation to help guide us. Whether it’s family, faith, the Constitution, a mentor or a trusted organization, we all need navigational aids to keep us on track, both at home and with our careers. As I continually work to guide the Coast Guard into the future the National Naval Officers Association remains one of those inspirations for me.
I had the privilege of speaking at this year’s NNOA Conference which features seminars focused on leadership, mentorship and diversity. So this was a perfect opportunity to discuss Keeper Richard Etheridge and how his dedicated service embodies proficiency in leadership, proficiency in craft and disciplined initiative.
Born into slavery, Etheridge, in 1880, became the first African American ever appointed as Keeper of a U.S. Lifesaving Station. In an era of such open and hostile racism, why was he chosen for this job? Proficiency. Richard Etheridge was the most proficient surfman and station keeper along the coast. Those in authority knew he had what it took to get the job done and lead his people safely in a difficult and dangerous profession.
Since I became Commandant, I have focused on improving our service’s proficiency in craft, proficiency in leadership and disciplined initiative. For 20 years, Keeper Etheridge epitomized these three traits. He inspired and motivated his crew to peak levels of proficiency. His Pea Island Lifesaving Station crew saved scores of lives, including the entire crew of the E.S. Newman during a ferocious storm.
The depth of talent that comes with diversity is a powerful force which creates opportunity for individuals and for the service, especially when combined with leadership and mentoring. For Richard Etheridge, proficiency created his opportunity to be the Keeper – the commanding officer – of a Lifesaving Service station, even in the post-Civil War era. He in turn provided the opportunity for all the men at his station to become the very best at their profession, leading to a string of successful rescues that would make Pea Island one of the best and most respected stations. While we work together as a team to accomplish our mission, each Coast Guard man or woman is an individual who is capable – and expected – to make a difference.
It’s easy to look at people from our history and see them as simply part of our past, but they are more than that. They are part of a procession, a long blue line, that started back in 1790 and continues to this day. We have everywhere among us those who demonstrate that same proficiency, that same drive to lead and mentor others, and they are creating opportunities for all those who follow. Opportunities not just for individuals, but also for their units and the entire Coast Guard to serve our country the very best we can. It’s what we should all be striving for.