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The Interview: Sally Brice-O'Hara

On eve of her retirement, Annapolis native steps into No. 1 spot at the Coast Guard

By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

8:21 AM EDT, April 30, 2012

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As the No. 2 leader of the Coast Guard, Vice Adm. — and Vice Commandant — Sally Brice-O'Hara is the chief operating officer of an organization with a $10 billion budget and 58,000 military and civilian employees, plus 31,000 volunteers.

Last week, less than a month before her own retirement, the Annapolis native and 1974 Goucher College graduate was temporarily bumped up a rung to No. 1 while her boss, Adm. Robert Papp, recovered from surgery.

Brice-O'Hara has served coast to coast as well as in Hawaii. The admiral and her husband, Robert O'Hara, live in the Annapolis area and have two grown sons.

Both sides of her family have been in Maryland "since the days of the Colonies," she said, adding that she learned to fish, crab and sail in the waters around the state capital. One of her Annapolis High School classmate was Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots coach.

Brice-O'Hara, 58, is an only child. Her father was a Navy gunner's mate, and she grew up with an appreciation of military service.

With an undergraduate degree in sociology — she would later add master's degrees from Harvard University and the National War College — Brice-O'Hara looked around for her first job. The Coast Guard caught her eye.

Why the Coast Guard?

It was an era where barriers were dropping and doors were being opened, and the Coast Guard was very progressive. We did things ahead of the other services. It was the missions, it was the size, it was the opportunity and it was a commitment of three years. That suited me just fine because I thought I would gain some job skills and then return to something else in the private sector. I really liked what I've done in the Coast Guard and so here it is, almost 38 years later. The Coast Guard's obviously been good to me.

How has the mission changed over the years?

Early in my career, we were very focused on search and rescue. Lifesaving is always the hallmark of the Coast Guard, and that's what most people think of. When I was first commissioned, we started doing armed law enforcement boardings, and that was a huge change for the American public and the Coast Guard. Today, that's commonplace. No one thinks twice about seeing the Coast Guard with sidearms when they come aboard a vessel.

We have had changes in our search-and-rescue policies. We used to take every case, so if you ran out of gasoline but you weren't in any distress we still would go and help you. But now there are commercial providers to tackle those cases.

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Coast Guard picked up new duties under the Oil Pollution Act that mandated changes in vessels and response. Following the 9/11 attacks, there were new Homeland Security missions for the Coast Guard to ensure we know what is happening on the water and that industry is taking steps to make sure that they are prepared for anyone who would do us harm. We have regulatory responsibilities, inspection responsibilities and we have an enforcement role.

What are the Coast Guard's strengths today?

We have been able to understand what the nation needs and we step forward and we get the job done. We're small, but we're very flexible.

What was your favorite assignment?

There are a lot of favorites for a lot of reasons. The most unique and priceless honor that I had was in the 14th District, where I lived in government quarters that happened to be at Diamond Head Lighthouse. The opportunity to wake up every day with the wonderful, breathtaking vista of the Pacific Ocean, at the approaches to the harbor at Honolulu, the approaches to Waikiki, there I am on the bluff, just below Diamond Head, with the lighthouse right in the yard — it's something I will never forget.

When you are stationed in the Pacific, you can't help but become so aware of the role of the Navy and the Coast Guard in World War II, with the attack of Pearl Harbor and all that followed and the significant contribution the Coast Guard made with the landings on the islands in the Pacific. In addition to being able to live in such a beautiful site, the opportunity to learn about the history and tell others about it was an honor.

My other favorite job was Training Center Cape May from 1998 to 2001. I was a captain, and I really felt I was contributing to the Coast Guard's future in that role. Cape May is the Coast Guard's only recruit training center. We were training anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 recruits each year. It was an opportunity to make significant investments and improvements in the way the center looked and to upgrade the training programs and curriculum. … And Cape May was where I was selected for flag [admiral] and so my first honors were done there. Both of our boys were born at Cape May.

Which of your assignments was an absolute bear?

That would be right here in Baltimore. I was the last commander of Group Baltimore. At the time we had two types of units focused on different missions in the port area. I was the commander of the Group at Curtis Bay with the small boats, the stations and operations center overseeing the rescue missions in the bay area. The other unit was the Marine Safety Office located at the Customs House. It was focused on the regulatory aspects of shipping. They had inspectors and investigators but no boats. If something happened offshore and they needed to get someone on the scene, the Group would arrange for a boat.

What made sense was to combine us into one unit, which is today's Sector Baltimore. But the Coast Guard did it first with four prototypes to figure out the best way to deliver services most efficiently. I had the opportunity to be part of planning Sector Baltimore. We had a lot of freedom to figure out the best way to do it — and then we had to do it.

Was it painful?

We had to blend two cultures into one. We had a lot of learning to do about each other. We all had to become conversant in each other's world. Whenever you have change, you have worries — What's going to happen to me? Do I gain stature? Am I diminished? In my instance, I left a command and became a deputy. Capt. [G.S.] Cope, head of the Marine Safety Office, became the commander here in Curtis Bay. Lots of change, but I absolutely believe it was the right thing to do operationally. And clearly it was the right thing because today we have reorganized across the Coast Guard.

What was it like to go from being commander to No. 2? How did you deal with that?

I have always felt that the key to success in your profession is if you are broadening your understanding of the organization and you are taking on new challenges and you are continually learning through what are sometimes very difficult times. I wanted to make myself a better Coast Guard leader. All of what I was required to do to work through that significant change and then blend into the new unit was professionally enhancing. I think it helped keep me fresh and it provided me with a perspective I didn't have before. As I have moved up in my career, I think I have become more versatile and more useful to the Coast Guard because of the broadening I received during that assignment.

But you could have pouted.

Well, you have to be humble enough to see that what's most important is the success of the Coast Guard. If the Coast Guard is successful, if your unit is successful, then the people will be successful. I was never in the Coast Guard to be an admiral. I was never in the Coast Guard to be vice commandant. I have been in the Coast Guard because it has allowed me to feel personally fulfilled at the end of the day.

And if the Coast Guard continued to see me as a leader who provided value and wanted to keep me around, that was great. But what I most focused on was doing my job well. And when I mentor young people and provide career advice, I always emphasize that you have to be personally and professionally satisfied by what you do. You can never be static. You might have to take on duties or tasks that you're not familiar with, but that's how you grow, that's how you stay competitive.

How do you strike a balance in your life?

Everybody has different demands on them and other things that are important in their lives. Not many people know that I have a family. I have a wonderful husband who was a Coast Guard officer and he understood what I was going through, and I understood what he was going through. His career track took him to sea a lot, so I was home alone raising two boys. And there were times in my career where I went in late at night or took a lot of calls at home in the evening or the weekend, and he was willing to do his part. Our family moved a lot and our boys didn't complain. One joins and the whole family serves.

Thirty-eight years is a long time. Will you miss this?

I will always be a part of the Coast Guard family. … I know I will continue to be involved and there are ways I can continue to give back. There are people coming up behind me that I know I will stay in touch with because I have a vested interest in their success. Retiring to Annapolis I'll be close to headquarters so I know I'll stay in tune. There will be some gladness, too, because when I leave there's a lot of promotions that will happen all the way down the chain. It's time for someone else to have an opportunity.

You're 58, too young to retire.

There's a lot more I expect I'll be doing, whether it's community service, volunteering, employment. I'm certain there will be something to come along and I'm fortunate to be in a position where I can pick and choose. I'm not necessarily going to jump at the first offer. But I expect there will be somebody interested in the skills and talent that I have to offer. I still need to write my resume [laughing].

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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