Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Sasha Rodriguez
Cmdr. Stephen Matadobra holds the distinction of being one of the Coast Guard’s first officers in the service to have earned the permanent cutterman status (earned in 1987), and he will soon hold the title of the Coast Guard’s 15th Gold Ancient Mariner in May.
The Gold Ancient Mariner title dates back to 1978 in which the Coast Guard recognizes the officer with the earliest receipt date of a permanent cutterman insignia and have at least 10 years of sea time, an honorary position that serves as a reminder of the call to duty on the high seas.
This September, Matadobra will celebrate 41 years of Coast Guard service, in which time he climbed the enlisted ranks from a seaman to a boatswain’s mate before becoming a chief warrant officer. From there he climbed the officer ranks to captain.
Hailing from the seaside Brooklyn neighborhood of Coney Island, New York, Matadobra joined the Coast Guard at 17 because of his interest in marine biology. Once assigned to his first cutter however, he struck boatswain’s mate and never looked back.
“Every cutter was unique,” said Matadobra.
As a junior enlisted member, Matadobra was involved in law enforcement and search and rescue operations during the mass migrations of the Cuban Mariel Boatlift of 1980. Later assigned to an 82-foot patrol boat out of Florida, Matadobra took part in the salvage operation immediately following the collision and sinking of the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn in 1980 in Tampa Bay. Twenty-three Coast Guard members perished that day – the service’s worst peacetime loss of life.
In his 41 years of service, Matadobra has experienced peaks and valleys of our organization that have helped shape his leadership style.
When asked about mentors throughout his career, Matadobra wistfully recalled a few master chief petty officers and chief warrant officers who gave him “swift kicks in the butt,” but ultimately pointed to his peers as the trusted pillars upon which he leans, specifically citing Capt. Doug Fears, with whom he served on the Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton.
Having advanced from seaman to commander, Matadobra has embodied each station’s specific operational responsibilities and perspectives. When asked about his biggest impressions from having transitioned from enlisted member to officer, he described a concept that he’s coined as “Big Coast Guard” – that is, the big picture frameworks in which the commissioned among us must navigate. If the enlisted world has more to do with the: who, what, when and where aspects, then the officer’s world is more dominated by the why’s.
Matadobra recalled a story Master Chief Petty Officer Kevin Isherwood once told him about a new fireman aboard a cutter who was instructed by his supervisor to go down below at a certain time every afternoon to open a particular valve. The fireman did as he was told, albeit without understanding why. As such, it was easy for him to do it begrudgingly – seen as a chore, primarily. Only after months of this repetitive chore did his supervisor tell him that the valve he opened every night was one that allowed the cooks to prepare dinner with hot water, as well as route hot water to the showers for the rest of the crew. In this new-found understanding of “why” the fireman’s entire perspective shifted and he operated under a renewed sense of duty and purpose.
“Leaders help their middle and junior folks understand ‘why,’ and understand their role in ‘Big Coast Guard,’” said Matadobra.
Professionalism and proficiency is also at the forefront of his agenda.
“As an advocate for the cutterman community, and the Coast Guard at large, I continue to preach the obligations of professionalism and proficiency,” said Matadobra. “Our platforms are so much more technically complex than they used to be, and it takes smart people to run them and to maintain proficiency.”
In fact, Matadobra will appropriately be assuming responsibilities at the Enlisted Personnel Management division in his next assignment, helping to further shape the future of our enlisted workforce.
Details of next month’s ceremony will be available soon.