On Tuesday, a man much of America recognizes for his leadership following the occurrence of a “bad day” will relinquish his command of one of our country’s oldest branches of federal service, the U.S. Coast Guard. Having served the past four years as Commandant, Thad Allen has become one of those unique, iconic American figures that when you see him or mention his name, you almost immediately think of words, “trust,” “competent” and “leader.”
He is, for lack of a better description, a Walter Cronkite type – one of the most trusted people in America – a man that citizens could turn to and hear straight facts, be they good or bad, with no BS or political showmanship. It gave you comfort to see and hear him because you knew that he was on the job to make the situation right.
In a country gripped by bi-partisan, anti-incumbency fever, where career seniority is seen as a liability and not an asset, his departure as Commandant couldn’t happen at a more challenging moment. For those who are privileged to know him and have worked for him (as I did in 2005 during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita), his retirement is certainly the culmination of a distinguished 30-year career. He has truly earned whatever break he and his family want to have from constant moves, late night briefings, long deployments, Congressional hearings and rubber chicken dinners. As difficult as all of those things may have been for him and his family, Allen’s career has been about two things: leadership and service to others.
Because of recent events, we know just a few of the public metrics of those two attributes, most notably his service as lead for the Federal response following Hurricane Katrina. With hundreds dead, thousands displaced, an American city in ruin, and a flop of a Federal response dropped in his lap, if there was ever a no-win situation for a person to step into, it was Katrina. There truly was no place to go but up, but it took leadership to point the correct direction and take the first step. It was Allen who began the trek out of the muck.
As someone who was there in Louisiana at the time, I can say without hesitation that when he took over, there was a literal sea change in how the response unfolded. In respecting the various jurisdictions of all of the federal, state, local and private sector players, Allen empowered his people to take action to make change happen and happen quickly. It was for those reasons that then-President Bush and DHS Secretary Chertoff tapped him to respond to one of our nation’s darkest days. It is for those exact same reasons that President Obama and DHS Secretary Napolitano have asked him to serve as the National Incident Commander in dealing with the on-going oil spill in the Gulf – an unprecedented service that he will continue to fulfill even after his tenure as Commandant ends on Tuesday.
Allen’s career in the Coast Guard is almost unparalleled given the increased public recognition that it brought for him personally and to his service branch. Most Americans can recognize the country’s senior military leadership from news photos and television coverage, but for generations of Americans, the U.S. Coast Guard was a service not in prominent public view. To many Americans, the Coast Guard was synonymous with the guys who patrolled the rivers and lakes and made sure everyone behaved themselves with their boats. As unfortunate as the circumstances were, the Coast Guard’s unrecognized leadership and service to others caught the full attention of the country as the responses to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita unfolded.
Helicopter airlifts, boat patrols and other rescues were the bright spots in bleak days. Fate happened to put Thad Allen in the center of it all. From that point forward, Allen’s unsought celebrity brought recognition to him and to the men and women with whom he served; something that was long overdue for a service that has been in operation from this country’s beginning. The unique “gift” of public recognition also provided Allen the political capital to say things that needed to be said (especially during budget hearings) and to put in place things that needed to be there to deal with twenty-first century threats (e.g. Deployable Operations Group, etc.).
Allen is not without his critics, but few can deny his elevation as Commandant and recognition of his service branch are due to a unique military culture that insists that public, private and military sectors work together to achieve mission success. While DHS is made of many distinguished and accomplished parts, few of them have anything like the culture of the Coast Guard that trains its personnel from Day One to adapt and respond to events and processes, rather then be subject to processes and bureaucratic programming.
Such are the hallmarks of a career founded in leadership and service to others. They just don’t end when a final salute is given and a command change is complete. Instead, they show up on Wednesday to deal with on-going bad days and to make miserable situations right. Thad Allen’s career could not end any other way.