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Coast Guard's 'Dr. Master Chief' Calculates Climb to Top

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2000, Feb. 10, 2000 – In 1972, Vincent W. Patton III had an unrealistic dream for a young black man. He wanted to be master chief of the Coast Guard. But in those days, finding a black face in the Coast Guard was tantamount to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

But, over the years, dramatic changes in attitudes and situations occurred and, 27 years later, Patton is master chief of the Coast Guard. It's ironic, too, that Patton, who holds two bachelor's degrees, a master's and a doctorate, became a Coast Guardsman by accident.

His fascination with sea service was created by his older brother, Greg, who was serving in the Navy and used to write him "wonderful letters about how great things were in the Navy." The teen-ager was so enthralled he developed a passion for the Navy and read everything he could find about Navy life. He even decorated his room with "Go Navy" posters.

"I was going into the Navy!" Patton exclaimed unequivocally.

On his 17th birthday, shortly after graduating from high school, his father drove him to downtown Detroit to the military recruiting offices. Patton said when he walked in, "All I could see was an open door and a guy on the phone wearing a Navy uniform."

He settled down in a chair -- in the wrong office. "I looked up at a sign -- 'Coast Guard,'" Patton recalled. "Back then, the Coast Guard wore the same uniforms as the Navy."

Disappointed and embarrassed, Patton told the Coast Guard recruiter he'd return the next week if he decided to join. "I was nervous and embarrassed, and I wasn't going to tell him, 'Sorry, I'm in the wrong place.'" Patton said with a hearty laugh. "I was going back to join the Navy."

But his plan was altered by his father and brother's enthusiasm about the Coast Guard. His father was in the Army and brother in the Navy, but they both had hankered to be Coast Guardsmen.

Young Patton was shocked when his father said, "This is great! I tried to join the Coast Guard in 1939, but they wouldn't accept me because it was so segregated they had a quota for blacks."

"My father was willing to be a steward -- to shine officer's shoes -- because he thought the Coast Guard was exciting and wanted to be close to the action," Patton said. His father, Thomas C. Patton, spent 35 years in the Army and retired as a major. A chief warrant officer during the Vietnam War, the elder Patton received a battlefield commission and the Distinguished Service Cross for valor in combat. Greg Patton is a retired Navy captain, and another brother, Frank, is a retired Marine Corps warrant officer.

While in boot camp, Patton was intrigued by a picture of a Coast Guardsman with three stars over the stripes on his chevrons.

"Who is that and what's that rank?'" he asked the company commander.

"That's the master chief of the Coast Guard. He's the senior enlisted person in the Coast Guard," the company commander said.

"That's interesting. What does he do?" Patton asked.

"He's the principal adviser to the commandant of the Coast Guard on all enlisted matters," the recruiter explained.

"What does it take to get that job?" Patton asked.

"The company commander just blew me off and never gave me an answer," Patton said with a laugh. He asked the same question to his career counselor, then Petty Officer 3rd Class Curt Gunn, now a retired Coast Guard commander, who told him: "A Coast Guard career is like playing golf. You've got to play one hole at a time. You start looking at things you can do."

"I calculated the kinds of positions that would help me for the next level," Patton said. "Everybody who I told what I wanted to do blew me off until I met Hollis B. Stephens, the third master chief of the Coast Guard."

When Patton was a radioman at the Coast Guard Group Office in Detroit, his supervisor was Stephens, then a master chief boatswain's mate. Patton said Stephens was "the first guy who didn't laugh or give me a reason I shouldn't pursue being the master chief of the Coast Guard. He sat down with me and told me what I had to do. Part of it was education. He almost ordered me to go to school during my free time."

Taking Stephens' suggestions to heart, Patton embarked on his quest for the top enlisted position in the Coast Guard. Carefully calculating moves toward the top enlisted job in the Coast Guard, Patton earned a bachelor of science degree in social work from Shaw College in Detroit. He chose social work after deciding he needed skills in helping people, communications, writing and problem solving.

He went on to earn a bachelor of arts degree in communications from Pacific College, Angwin, Calif.; a master's degree in counseling psychology from Loyola University, Chicago; and a doctor of education degree from American University in Washington, D.C., in 1984. He's also a graduate of the Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Academy, Army Sergeants Major Academy, with distinction, and the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute.

He was tapped for recruiting duty while stationed in Detroit and was going to protest the assignment until Stephens told him: "I was a recruiter. You've got to learn people skills, more about the organization. If you can put people in the organization and feel good about it, then that's when it's good to be in."

Patton became a successful recruiter in Chicago and got involved as a volunteer in the Loyola University Youth Motivation Program. Working with troubled youth encouraged him to go after his master's degree at the university.

He met Coast Guard Adm. James S. Gracey in while on recruiting duty in Chicago in 1976. Gracey asked him if he was going to officer candidate school. Patton responded: "No sir, I'm going to be master chief of the Coast Guard."

The admiral chuckled, but he never forgot Patton's comment.

Patton's next calculated move had his friends and acquaintances thinking he was nuts. "I accepted a demotion from E-6 back to E-4 to make a career change from radioman to yeoman," he said. "But 14 months later, I was an E-6 again. That move opened a lot of doors for me."

In 1982, he was selected to assist in the development of a Coast Guard enlisted evaluation system at American University in Washington. It took four years to design, develop and implement the new system.

"It had a big impact on the entire service," Patton said.

It also had a huge impact on him. Gracey interviewed him for the job at American University -- and told Patton he remembered his statement about one day being master chief of the Coast Guard. "You're going to be master chief of the Coast Guard," Gracey told him. "That's why you're here."

"After that assignment, I could get anything I wanted in the Coast Guard," Patton said. Ironically, he turned down posh assignments at Coast Guard headquarters many of his counterparts pined for. Instead, he chose sea duty.

"I had to go back to field duty to prove to everybody that I knew how to take care of people and all the other things necessary to be master chief of the Coast Guard," he explained.

He went to Seattle for a tour aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell. "It's a pretty demanding job, going aboard a high endurance cutter as a chief petty officer," Patton said. "I knew not many people would step up to the plate and say, 'I want to do that.'"

He was "the man" aboard the Boutwell -- boarding officer, helicopter safety landing officer, chief yeoman and damage control training team chief.

Making E-8 on that assignment placed him one star away from the grade he needed to reach his goal. Patton made himself more valuable by developing the Coast Guard's development leadership programs and managing the chief petty officer academy.

Those experiences propelled him to the grade of master chief and got him selected for the president's commission to study the issue of gays in the military.

He endured a lot of trials and tribulations along the way, but Patton reached his goal -- master chief of the Coast Guard in 1998. That makes him the principal adviser to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. James Loy and his directorates.

Patton said he's the principal adviser to the commandant on quality of life, personnel and a wide range of other issues affecting enlisted personnel.

"I've expanded the role of the master chief of the Coast Guard to being the disseminator of information that's beneficial to everyone," he noted. "I'm just not the master chief for enlisted personnel, but for officers and civilians, because they either come in contact with or supervise enlisted personnel. They've got to be well informed about pay issues, health care, assignments, understanding how advancements to promotions systems work and what the people's concerns are."

He also has an eye toward the future. "My predecessors and I have come into this job wanting to develop some kind of legacy," Patton said. "I'm focusing on developing a career guidance path for enlisted personnel. I feel we should have a game plan to help our people reach their goals in or out of the service."

He said Stephens warned him to grow a thick skin because he would always face questions about his race no matter how hard he worked. "So performance meant more than doing the best. I had to ensure that I did better than the best," he said.

"I don't think the minorities and women in the Coast Guard today have to experience that as much as I had to 27 years ago," said Patton, whose second wife, the former Nancy Kocher of Boston, a computer systems consultant and former Coast Guard Reserve yeoman. There's a "big, big difference" between the 1972 and today's Coast Guard, he said. The way records were kept in 1972, he said, no one knows the percentage of African Americans in the Coast Guard then. You were white or an "other," he recalled.

Patton was in the Coast Guard three years before he ever met an African American chief petty officer. "If you saw a black chief or officer during my first six to eight years in the Coast Guard, you ran up to shake his or her hand because they were a novelty," he said.

The Coast Guard used to be thought of as a "rich white boy's" organization, Patton said. He said that phrase was coined from the Vietnam era draft because the Coast Guard was a good alternative service to the draft.

"A lot of the Coast Guard stations are located near nice marinas, and when you go out to rescue people, what's the income and color of the guy who owns that boat?" Patton said. "So the Coast Guard carried this negative connotation for a number of years."

Minorities are no long a novelty, the top master chief said. "Today, African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Pacific Americans and women are so integrated into the organization that they don't turn heads anymore," he said. There are women now who are senior captains and on the verge of becoming flag officers. In 1997, the Coast Guard got its first African American flag officer, Rear Adm. Erroll M. Brown, Commander, Maintenance and Logistics Command, Atlantic, Norfolk, Va.

"The time has come," Patton said.

Two hobbies, running and collecting toys, keep him in shape and clear his mind. "I consider myself the world's slowest marathon runner, but running races is a natural hobby of mine," he said. "It's a big mind thing and a great social gathering." He has run 15 marathons, including nine Marine Corps marathons, and more than 100 other race events.

His spacious office overlooking the Potomac River in Washington is filled with toys. "I collect toys, but not just to look at," Patton said with a wide grin. "They take my mind off other things, and each one has reason and meaning."

Psychologically, toy collecting stems from a lack of toys during his childhood, said Patton, who comes from a family of 10 brothers and sisters. "Every Christmas we all got one thing," he said. "I always said to myself, when I become an adult, I'm going to buy anything I want as a toy, and I'm going to play with it."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThere's a "big, big difference" between the Coast Guard of the 1970s and today's, said Master Chief of the Coast Guard Vincent W. Patton III. He's wearing some of the 15 marathon medals he has won around his neck. Photo by Rudi Williams.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageHis administrative assistant, Chief Petty Officer Trudy Douglas, joins Master Chief of Coast Guard Vincent W. Patton III at a table of toys in his office. Photo by Rudi Williams.  
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