Monday, September 06, 2004

Change of Command: A tradition as old as going to sea

Under gray clouds bursting under a pale blue sky, last Friday Rear Admiral Dale Gabel stepped down as Commander, Coast Guard Maintenance & Logistics Command Atlantic. He was relieved by newly promoted Rear Admiral Clifford Pearson, who most recently served as the Coast Guard's Chief Information Officer.

Changes of Command are a time honored tradition which demonstrates the continuity of authority and command in a military organization. This change of command was hoisted on Admiral Gabel quickly; he learned of the date less than two weeks previous. He'd been "double hatting" as the MLCA Commander and the Assistant Commandant for Acquisition for months; when his deputy was injured in a motorcycle accident, Vice Admiral Crea decided the change of command had to happen sooner rather than later.

So, this past Friday we gathered at the Integrated Support Command in Portsmouth for the change of command. Frankly, I was, and am, sorry to see Admiral Gabel leave. He is a solid leader and a straight shooter. Perhaps not much of a radical innovator, he believed in sold leadership and management tactics. And, he'd been here at the command for four years, supporting my efforts to help with performance excellence. Who could ask for more?

The flags were whipping in the hurricane season as we took our seats at the call to quarters. Mrs. Gabel entered on the arms of a junior officer; she looked tired and sad. I can only imagine that this is a bitter, bittersweet moment, with one of her sons laid to rest only days before.

The band was good and brassy... the Tidewater Winds... better than some uniformed bands I've heard at changes of command.

I was touched by the Chaplain's prayer of invocation, fitting for all believers be we Islamic, Jewish, or Christian. He invoked a universal call to leadership and followership.

I felt it was like old home week; visiting commanding officers from field units sat sprinkled in the some 200 seats under the tent, fabric straining in the brisk breeze. I'd run into a couple of captains before the ceremony started; I was met with bright and wide smiles from the leaders I've worked with over the years. I can only hope I've helped.

Admiral Crea commented that the Coast Guard is a "unique and primier maritime, multi-mission, military service." As the words tumbled out of her mouth, I wondered who could complete with us, the description so specific. At least she didn't claim we were the primier maritime service of the primier coast guard; I'd have taken issue with her. ;-)

During Admiral Gabel's comments, I was struck by how much -- and how little -- we have done in the last two years. His only moment of emotion came when he mentioned his recently deceased son, Reed. He choked up, big time. I thought this showed something of who he really is, some bit of character. He'd done a great job professionally at the MLC. And yet, his time here in Hampton Roads was not without its cost, a cost which was, perhaps, too high.

Perhaps that's the image I'm left with most: emotion at the loss of a son. A striving to carry on, but an acknowledgement that a huge hole is left in his heart. A note that all is not work, and a statement that home is what matters most. Leaving a great job, working with good people, none of that compares to the pain of burying one's own flesh and blood. That hurt transcends all; nothing else comes close.

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