Adm. Paul Zukunft is congratulated by outgoing Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp in front of Department of Homeland Securty Secretary Jeh Johnson during a change-of-command ceremony Friday at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Coast Guard)
The new boss
■ Name: Adm. Paul Zukunft
Education: B.S. government, Coast Guard Academy; M.A. management, Webster University; M.A. national security, Naval War College
Cutter commands: Upright, Harriet Lane, Rush
Awards: Department of Homeland Security Distinguished Service Medal, Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit (3), Meritorious Service Medal (5)
Thousands of Coast Guardsmen, past and present, gathered alongside friends and family at the Coast Guard’s gleaming headquarters Friday to celebrate the retirement of Commandant Adm. Bob Papp and welcome the new chief, Adm. Paul Zukunft.
Zukunft, 59, a 37-year service veteran and the 25th commandant, served previously as Pacific Area commander in Alameda, California, responsible for all Coast Guard operations in the Western Hemisphere.
Papp, 62, retired after 39 years of service and a tenure as commandant that observers have called a great success in stabilizing a rapidly changing service.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos gave guests a little insight into Papp’s early career. His father was a Marine, Amos said, but Papp chose another service.
“I don’t know how that happened,” he said.
Amos also honored Papp’s wife, Linda, who he said has also devoted her life to the service.
The two met when Papp was a cadet at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, and Linda was Miss Connecticut 1972.
“I want to start off by saying how unlikely it is that I would end up in this position,” Papp said as he took the stage to make his final speech as commandant, explaining that he failed calculus at the academy, which he graduated from in 1975.
He also gave a response to Amos.
“I did want to become a Marine at one time, until I found out that Marines eat a lot of baked beans,” Papp said. “It was disgusting. He would eat them right out of the can.”
Papp also spoke of his early days as commandant, when people urged him to reinvent and rebrand the Coast Guard by dropping missions and focusing on security.
Reinventing is for marketers, he said, not leaders.
“Four years ago, we set the watch, and we committed ourselves to steady the service, honor our profession, strengthen our partnerships and respect the service,” he said.
'Straight-shooting ship captain'
Zukunft began his speech with a story about attending a different change-of-command ceremony: The new commandant was a third-class academy cadet in 1974 when Adm. Owen Siler became the 10th commandant.
“And I thought, ‘What is the big deal?’ ” he said. “I’m here to say today, this is a big deal.”
Zukunft — pronounced ZOO-kunft, he pointed out — laid out his vision in three parts: service to nation, duty to people and commitment to excellence. He also pointed at prevention of sexual assault and substance abuse as top priorities.
Zukunft comes to headquarters from a tour as head of Pacific Area Command and Defense Force West, but his biggest headlines came in 2010, when he was the federal on-scene coordinator for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
He directed more than 47,000 responders, 6,500 vessels and 120 aircraft battling the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
“Gosh, what a complex problem that was to face,” retired Coast Guard Capt. Jim Howe told Navy Times in a Wednesday phone interview. “He’s got the interagency piece down pat and that’s crucial, because just about nothing the Coast Guard does is in a vacuum. It’s working alongside the Navy, [Customs and Border Protection], industry.”
Howe, now a contributing writer at the U.S. Naval Institute, most recently served as chief of Coast Guard Congressional Affairs in Washington. Though he never worked for Zukunft, he heard all about him.
“This guy was just the straight-shooting ship captain, who just really understands Coast Guard operations,” he said. “As with Adm. Papp, these are people who really knew at the deck-plate level what was going on.”
Papp came in under different circumstances, following an increase of national security missions because of 9/11, the failed Deepwater acquisition program and the reorganization of the service into sectors.
“The Coast Guard had been going through a lot of change. He wanted to just finish that up,” Howe said. “When you look at his confirmation testimony back in March 2010, he said he wanted to kind of complete these ongoing reforms.”
And he was successful, Howe added, not only with wrapping up the transition, but in moving forward with plans to recapitalize the cutter fleet.
“The biggest part — and this is actually a very pleasant surprise to people who watch the Coast Guard — is Adm. Papp fought like a bear and ... he put himself really out there to get the funding for all eight of the national security cutters.”
Back in 2006, Howe said, it was an open question whether the Coast Guard would even get six of the ships.
“These are by far the best ships the Coast Guard’s ever had, probably the best Coast Guard ships the world has ever seen,” he said. “So to have eight of those instead of six is a big deal.”
The Coast Guard has 11 statutory missions, and trying to be in so many places at once can cause Coast Guardsmen to lose sight of their core identity.
“I think that that’s probably one of the things that I’ve gotten the most positive feedback across the service: this sort of steadying the service and thinking about ourselves as being Coast Guardsmen,” Papp told Navy Times in a recent interview.
It will be up to Zukunft to carry on that legacy, Howe said.
“I don’t think he faces anything of a crisis that needs to be a change in course, per se,” he said. “I think that he’s being handed a pretty stable service, which is exactly what Adm. Papp intended to do during his tenure.”