NEW LONDON, Conn. — For months, Michael Lora kept a Coast Guard coin in his uniform pocket to give to the top admiral.
It is tradition for senior Coast Guard officers to give their command coins to junior members who excel, not vice versa. But Lora, a yeoman serving at the Coast Guard Academy, felt he should "give the commandant a coin and say, 'You've been doing a good job and I would serve under you again.'"
As Lora was leaving Goldy's Restaurant in New London one day earlier this month, he saw Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. jogging straight toward him.
"Hi, Admiral," Lora called out. Papp stopped.
Lora did not have the coin with him because he was not in uniform but he plans to keep it in his pocket in case he sees Papp again.
"Looking at Petty Officer Lora, you think about all the young men and women like him that have been out on these missions, whether it is during wars or during rescues or other things," Papp said in a recent interview. "And you get this constant feeling of 'Am I doing enough to make sure they have the tools and the training to do their job as safely as possible, under those really challenging conditions we send them out into?'"
As the 24th commandant of the Coast Guard, Papp, who grew up in Norwich, set out in his four-year command to give Coast Guardsmen the resources and training they need to be highly competent in their craft, and as leaders.
Coast Guard 'identity crisis'
When Papp was tapped to lead the Coast Guard in 2010, the service, he said, was facing an "identity crisis."
Six thousand personnel were cut in the late 1990s. Then, after Sept. 11, 2001, the Coast Guard grew rapidly and took on increasing responsibilities for homeland security. Commandants before Papp reorganized and modernized.
Papp said he felt it was time to "steady the service" and not impose any more institutional change.
Instead he focused on the aging, deteriorating fleet and a recent spate of serious accidents involving Coast Guard aircraft and boats. There had been nine major aviation mishaps in the year and a half prior to his appointment, in which a total of 11 aviators were killed, he said.
If Papp had not been promoted he likely would have had to retire after commanding the Atlantic Area from 2008 to 2010. Leaving then, he said, he would have thought, "We are going in the wrong direction. We are deteriorating in terms of proficiency. It is manifesting itself in the death of Coast Guard people, and I haven't been able to effect any change."
Papp set out to change the way people are trained and vessels are cared for. He required commanding officers to serve full tours to become seasoned in command, instead of leaving early for the next assignment. Enlisted personnel in certain jobs now serve longer tours. He launched the first professional development career course for mid-grade officers.
In the latest aviation safety report, the Coast Guard reported that since the spike in serious Class A aviation accidents in 2010, there were two in fiscal 2012 and none in fiscal 2011 or 2013.
Papp also secured the funding to build the last five of eight new National Security Cutters, despite the pressure to cut the federal budget.
The Coast Guard received money to build new patrol boats and refurbished the Polar Sea icebreaker to bring it back into service. There is money in the budget to build a new polar icebreaker. The aircraft fleet was renovated and the Air Force agreed to transfer 14 new planes to the Coast Guard.
Twenty-five offshore patrol cutters will be built, Papp said, the most significant shipbuilding project in the history of the Coast Guard.
As the service's assistant commandant for resources and chief financial officer, Rear Adm. Stephen P. Metruck worked with Papp on recapitalizing the fleet. Metruck said Papp "provided the vision and the guidance that was unfaltering, despite a lot of challenges that we had," including the automatic budget cuts imposed through sequestration.
"He always kept that vision for the future of the service. He remained resolute in his vision and unwavering in the importance of these assets for the future of the Coast Guard," said Metruck, who now commands the Fifth Coast Guard District. "... You can't underestimate the value of that, that your leadership believes we're going to do it. That inspires the team."
To use a nautical expression, Metruck said Papp was "the steady hand on the tiller" through turbulent times.
Papp said, "The way I approached this job is, I'm sort of the father of this Coast Guard family."
"And like any father, you have got to show strength, compassion, care, concern and love for the people that you are responsible for," he said.
He said he is proud of the way they rallied to respond to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and to Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Coast Guard aviators and rescue swimmers went out in the hurricane and saved 14 of the 16 crew members from the tall ship Bounty, while other Coast Guardsmen reopened the ports.
Papp has visited Coast Guardsmen around the world to ask them about their interests, concerns and aspirations, and to say thank you.
Lora said, "He does care. If he wants feedback, he obviously wants to know how we're doing.
"When he speaks, it sounds like he is full of confidence, and that inspires confidence in the people who serve under him. He has been in the service way longer than I have. He has seen what we can do and he knows it's doable."
Papp, who will be relieved as commandant May 30, has served for four decades. As he prepares to depart, many people have asked him whether he is going to be upset or sad or anxious.
"I would really say, none of the above," Papp said. "I've had a very fulfilling career. I've gone much farther in the Coast Guard than I ever expected to. I've approached each and every day as a privilege to continue serving."
Eagle changed career
If Papp had never met retired Vice Adm. Paul A. Welling, he thinks he likely would have retired years ago.
When Papp was a company officer at the academy, Welling came into his office to "recruit" him to sail on Eagle in the summer. Papp had not contemplated sailing on Eagle before, and probably would not have.
"I think recruiting is probably too soft a term," Papp said. "I think he came into the office and told me I was sailing with him."
Welling commanded the barque Eagle from 1976 to 1980. He said recently that Papp had the leadership potential, capability and interest in going to sea that he was looking for.
Sailing on Eagle for two summers gave Papp the experience he needed to later command the ship. As Eagle's captain from 1996 to 1999, he interacted regularly with senior leaders and participated in diplomatic and public affairs missions.
That led to a series of jobs that culminated in his current post, Papp said.
"I really think that if I had not been captain of Eagle, I probably would have gone a different direction in the service," he said. "... Eagle was an inflection point in my career."
Welling, of East Lyme, said, "I think Admiral Papp's acceptance of challenge and adventure led him from one thing to another.
"We all know people who suggested things to us. In the end, it is how we conduct our lives that really matters, and Bob has conducted his life in an exemplary manner."
Retired Adm. James S. Gracey, who led the Coast Guard from 1982 to 1986, also speaks highly of Papp and his wife, Linda, and of the state of the Coast Guard today. Papp considers Gracey a mentor and friend.
"They are warm and caring and very special people," Gracey said. "The Coast Guard is in excellent condition."
Papp plans to retire to Fairfax County, Va., so he and Linda can be near their three daughters and their families. He wants to work on completing the National Coast Guard Museum in New London, which was one of his top priorities in office.
Linda Kapral Papp is the daughter of Frank Kapral, a retired Coast Guard captain and Academy football coach who is fondly known throughout the service as "Coach Kapral," having served two decades as assistant athletic director and athletic business manager at the Coast Guard Academy. She often traveled with her husband to meet with Coast Guard families and she worked to improve housing, child development centers and other services. Linda Papp is also the sponsor for one of the new National Security Cutters, the Hamilton.
"I think we've done a lot collectively," she said. "… The thing you're going to miss the most is the people. It has been a lot of fun. But other than that, I think I'm ready. I really am."
The one thing Papp wishes he had more time to work on is combatting sexual assault in the service.
In his last State of the Coast Guard address, Papp asked victims who felt their case was not being handled properly to contact him directly. They did. Cases have been opened and old cases reopened, he said.
Vice Adm. Paul Zukunft has been nominated to succeed Papp. Zukunft said that Papp's leadership and resolve "has left an indelible mark on the service."
"The Coast Guard is more proficient, more capable and more resilient due to Adm. Papp's contributions and I wish him fair winds and following seas," he said.
Papp said, "I'm approaching May 30 with a great deal of satisfaction, humility, I hope, and pride in knowing that the service is functioning fine. We have good leaders in place and I'm ready to see if there's anything else out there."
When he thinks about the future of the Coast Guard, Papp said he worries that the Coast Guard budget will be continuously under attack because of the pressure to cut discretionary spending.
What gives him optimism, he said, is the quality of the people who serve and the leadership of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
"The things that the Coast Guard does are constant. They never go away and there is always a need for us," Papp said. "So I just hope that people remember what we attempted to do, and that was to make sure we continued as the absolute best Coast Guard in the world."