By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 29, 2002 -- You wouldn't expect to find Popeye, Kermit the Frog, Gumby and Pokey prominently displayed in a senior military leader's office. Yet, that's what you find when you enter the world of Vincent W. Patton III, master chief petty officer of the U.S. Coast Guard.
For 30 years, this Detroit native has devoted his life to the nation's fifth military service. His office at Coast Guard headquarters reflects his unique, upbeat approach to his job and to life. There, a flesh-toned rubber foot extends from the bottom of a wall cabinet. A fluttering 10- inch, battery-operated rescue helicopter circles above a conference table.
|Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Vince Patton sits in his office, which is decorated with icons that reflect his leadership style and personal philosophy. Spinach-eating Popeye denotes strength and 'Seaman Gumby' signifies flexibility. A Coast Guard doll decked in a life vest and bearing a weapon represents the Coast Guard's dual role as both maritime rescuers and military service members. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.|
More than 100 Navy blue ball caps line the office walls, gifts from Coasties across the country. Countless mementos and a bevy of toys sit atop bookshelves and cabinets, each with its own special meaning. The spinach-eating Popeye, Patton is quick to point out, denotes strength, while frog- green Kermit represents ethnic diversity. 'Seaman Gumby' and his trusty horse Pokey, Patton says, signify flexibility.
The master chief also proudly displays a Coast Guard doll standing tall among its service counterparts. The doll's creation was the result of Patton's persistent pride in service. When a toy company introduced a Gen. Colin Powell doll in the wake of Desert Storm and launched an armed forces series, including a soldier, sailor, airman and Marine, the master chief wrote the manufacturer.
"They'd left out the Coast Guard, so I explained that under Title 14, U.S. Code, Section 1, the Coast Guard is a military service even though it operates under the Department of Transportation," he said. "About four months later, a Coast Guardsman (doll) came in the mail along with an apology letter from the president of Hasbro."
Patton serves as the principal adviser to the Coast Guard commandant on quality of life, career development, workplace environment and personnel matters affecting enlisted personnel. His inspirational leadership style is based on the Coast Guard's core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty. His self-proclaimed creed: "people, passion and performance" is at the heart of his personal philosophy.
"People energize me," he said. "As master chief of the Coast Guard it's my job to look after all the people, regardless of rank, whether they're a civilian, contractor, or family member," he stressed. "If you're connected to the Coast Guard in any way, as far as I'm concerned, this office has a responsibility to you.
"Passion is our sense of belonging," he continued. "If you want to inspire people, you have to encourage their sense of belonging to the organization. One of the most important things I found as I came into this job was that in order to elevate the interests of the Coast Guard, first we had to embrace our history, heritage and traditions."
Performance is based on preparation, Patton said. "We have to prepare our people well so they can perform well. That's what chief petty officers are tasked to do. You have to set the example. You've got to set the pace."
Patton landed in the Coast Guard at age 17 -- by mistake. His father was in the Army for more than 30 years. His older brother was in the Navy and he wanted to follow in his brother's seagoing footsteps. Patton's boyhood room was covered with 'Go Navy' banners, model ships and aircraft carriers and photos his sailor brother had sent home. After graduating high school, Patton went to sign up.
"I was so excited," he recalled. "My Dad drove me downtown and I went to see the recruiter. At the time, the Coast Guard uniform was the same as the Navy uniform. The only difference was it had the Coast Guard shield. When I realized I was in the wrong office, I was too embarrassed to walk out."
Patton's only exposure to the Coast Guard was what he'd seen on the TV series "Sea Hunt" and "Flipper." But after listening to the Coast Guard recruiter's pitch, Patton said, he made the switch.
Entering Coast Guard boot camp in 1972 at Cape May, N.J., the recruit learned he was in for some challenging times. Less than 2 percent of the Coast Guard's ranks were African Americans. Early on, his enthusiasm and optimism about his future drew a rebuff that he remembers to this day.
Standing in a hallway while in-processing, Patton said he asked his commander about a portrait on the wall. "He snapped at me and said it was Charles L. Calhoun, the first master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard. 'He's the guy that tells the commandant what to do. He's the enlisted man's admiral.'"
Later that day, Patton asked a career counselor what school he had to go to become master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard. To his chagrin, the company commander was standing behind him.
"He looked at me and said, 'Get out there on the ground and give me 50 pushups right now.' He got all up in my face and said, 'The day you become master chief of the Coast Guard, that's the day I'm going to walk on clouds.'"
From that moment on, Patton had a goal. Unfortunately, he noted, the company commander didn't live to see him become the first African American to serve as master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard. But that's jumping the gun in Patton's story. He first had to climb the enlisted ranks and prove himself to those who objected to his presence.
"I went to work for a chief who was a racist," Patton said of his first days as a radioman. "But in the end, he was the start of my success because of how mean he was to me." The chief made it clear he did not like African Americans and he did not want one in his radio room, Patton recalled.
"He would always call me a baboon, call me stupid, call me 'Stepin Fetchit' -- things like that. I had people on the ship that felt really badly for me because of the way the guy acted and because he got away with it. I was always the brunt of his jokes. He would put his foot up on me and say, 'Now shine my shoe, Boy.'"
Rather than run away, Patton said he stood his ground until an emergency at sea led to a breakthrough in the two men's relations. Because of his speed and competency, Patton, rather than the chief, was asked to relay Morse code messages between a rescue coordination center in New York and a Russian merchant ship in the North Atlantic.
"A Russian crew member had fallen down a ladder and was bleeding real bad," Patton said. "It was going to take us at least 18 hours to get to the ship. In the meantime, the people on board that ship had to try to stabilize that crewman in order to keep him alive. I had just gotten off watch and was heading to bed when the captain came down and got me."
The captain told Patton the situation was critical and they had to be sure to relay the medical information accurately. Patton stayed on the Morse code circuit the entire 18 hours. At first, he said, the chief hated him for it, but in the end the episode was a turning point.
"When we pulled back into New York and I was getting off the ship, the chief walked up to me with his wife and kids and he told his wife, "I want you to meet my best radioman on the ship.' I didn't know what to say, but I understood that was the best way he could say he was sorry. From that day forward, it was different."
In hindsight, Patton appreciates what he learned from the chief. "All the negative things he did -- I learned what not to do and what not to be. I also learned a lot about myself and how to deal with tough times.
"I had a lot of opportunities to get angry," he said. "I had a lot of opportunities to push that guy down a ladder, or accidentally swing a chain in his direction, but I didn't. I felt that I had to try to prove to him -- without having to kiss up to him -- that I was capable of doing what I had to do."
The chief's attitude toward him also spurred Patton to take correspondence courses. "This guy made me so mad I wanted to prove him wrong. Because he said I was stupid, I was determined to show him I wasn't stupid." Today, Patton holds a doctorate of education from American University, a master of science degree from Loyola Marymount and bachelor's degrees in communications and social work from Pacific College.
Through it all, Patton said he knew he wanted to stay in the Coast Guard, and he never lost sight of his goal of becoming the master chief petty officer.
"I realized it was a shot in the dark," he admitted. "But the things I went through along the way inspired me to do a better job. I could never place a value on the climb that started at Cape May."
Today, Patton said, 14 percent of the Coast Guard is African America, and he believes blatant discriminatory practices have stopped. "I could never say it's gone completely," he said, "but I think we've done a good job working to eliminate discrimination.
"Crew members are quick to respond if they see something like what occurred to me," he noted. "Back then, people turned their backs because they didn't want to get involved. Today, a crewmember, regardless of what race they are, or sex if it's a sex discrimination incident, would be real quick to snatch somebody by the collar and handle it."
When Patton enlisted, there were no women in the Coast Guard. Today, women make up 12 percent and the number continues to rise. When Patton retires later this year, his successor will be the first woman to serve as the senior enlisted service member in any of the armed forces. Master Chief Petty Officer Ja (pronounced 'Jay') M. Good is slated to take the top enlisted job in mid-July.
Patton credits the Coast Guard with giving him character. "You look at the life of 30 years, walking into the wrong office and ending up where I am today -- a lot of things happened along the way and I survived it and landed on my feet. To use the Army slogan, it really has helped me 'be all that I can be.'
The master chief also noted that as a child he suffered from a speech impediment. "I stuttered to the point that people made fun of me. I was always afraid to talk to people. When I was 8 years old, my parents brought us to Washington to hear Martin Luther King do his 'I Have a Dream' speech. Although I didn't really understand why I had to come, listening to everyone talk about how inspiring it was, I learned that I could do things if I put my mind to it, if I really worked at it.
With self-determination and patience, Patton said he stopped stuttering. "Once I started really working at it, and little by little I started gaining confidence. I thought I had licked the problem. I thought if I could do it, anybody could do it. I was drawn to people who felt they couldn't do things."
Patton's now taking all he's learned about personal motivation and perseverance and embarking on a new career as a Unitarian minister. In September, he'll begin seminary training at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.
"I'm not a big-time, religious kind of guy, but I'm a person that loves life," he said. "I enjoy working with and helping people. That has been my success. When I leave this earth, I want to know that I made an impact, that I made the people I worked with feel better. That's what makes me happy."
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