As Coast Guard Sector Juneau prepares for an upcoming change of command, outgoing Capt. Stephen R. White talked about a long and well-spent career while incoming Capt. Darwin A. Jensen talked about partnerships and priorities in an interview with the Empire.
The value of the individual, the necessity of partnerships and the sense of community in Alaska were foremost on all minds.
“I couldn’t have planned it any better. It was quite a voyage. The things I’ve been able to see and be able to do are beyond imagining,” said White, about his decades-long career, much of which was spent in Alaska. “I couldn’t imagine it growing up in Idaho.”
White graduated from the United States Coast Guard Academy in 1994, after being a three-sport athlete —wrestling, rugby and football —at the academy.
“I got interested in the Academy for sports,” White said. “I didn’t even know they had big ships in the Coast Guard.”
Cut from the same cloth
Jensen, who also grew up in Idaho, will assume command of Sector Juneau on July 7.
“We come from the same cloth. We come from a couple towns over in Idaho. We pheasant hunted in the same area in Idaho,” White said. “One thing about the Coast. Guard is that it’s small. I was amazed how many people knew him.”
Jensen previously commanded the Marine Safety Unit in Lake Charles, Louisiana, overseeing marine safety in the busy Southern port on the Gulf of Mexico’s heavily industrialized coast. Jensen has spent six years stationed in Juneau in the past.
“I really want to carry on what’s been done. This crew has done a great job. There’s a great service reputation,” Jensen said. “And I want to look into those partnerships. We’re really better together than we are apart.”
Those partnerships and the hard work of the individual Coast Guardsmen are what sustain the Coast Guard in Alaska, White said.
“It’s great to see young folks coming from all over the country in all weather, in all conditions, doing the missions,” White said. “I spent more time in front of the keyboard than I do out in the elements these days and I got huge admiration for the troops out there.”
Different skills, common challenges
While each captain has a different set of skills and experiences, White said, that’s to the Coast Guard and all of the Southeast’s advantage.
“We bring people with different backgrounds, different focus, different expertise to things. He brings a different set of eyes. That helps maintain our readiness and relevance to the community we serve,” White said. “The skillset is not as important as the leadership.”
Both captains agreed that the partnerships and that sense of community helps the Coast Guard in the largest, most challenging and remote district in the service. A strong sense of togetherness in the face of adversity makes it a favorite of both Jensen and his family, he said
“One of the reasons I love Alaska is the way the community pulls together in the face of the challenge,” Jensen said.
North to the future
That’s going to be important, Jensen said, as more focus shifts towards supporting operations in the melting ice of the Arctic.
“It’s important that we participate and have a role up there,” Jensen said. “There’s a lot up there in the Arctic.”
White also spoke of an expanded role for the Coast Guard as residents of the Southeast take a look ahead at possible disasters, from avalanches and earthquakes to landslides like those that rocked Haines last year.
“I see it only increasing. Whether responding to an earthquake or a mudslide, there’s a lot more traffic up here,” White said. “That’s not gonna change, that’s only going to increase. The Coast Guard’s role is only going to grow.”
The assets in place across Alaska will also continue to improve, as the Coast Guard homeports more of its new fast response cutters in Alaska while reshuffling or retiring older designs for better coastal coverage, White said. The Coast Guard is also replacing all MH-65 Dolphin helicopters in Alaska with MH-60 Jayhawks, like those already operating out of Coast Guard Air Station Sitka.
In the near future, though, both captains stressed the importance of those relationships and the work needed to be done as the Southeast gets ready for an impending summer tourist season from a cold launch off the block.
“We’re rekindling those relationships. And we’re having to do it real quick. We’ve been busy with SAR, we’ve been busy with inspections. The industry is picking up. That hot start from doing nothing has been a challenge and required us to work together,” White said. “We’re ready. It’s way more than just the cruise ships. It’s the fuel farms and the facilities on the water that supports the industry. The charter boats and the whale watchers and the kayaks and all the things that support the industry.”
For White, who will be remaining in Juneau after he retires from the service with the change of command, Alaska holds its own power.
“It’s the most beautiful but also the most violent and challenging conditions I’ve ever been in. I think it makes for better Coast Guardsmen,” White said. “I would say that my most rewarding and challenging job has been all the ships I’ve served on here in Alaska.”
White thanked Alaskans for the fraternity and community they’d shown him and his family over a long career in Alaska.
“I want to say a thank you to Southeast Alaska. One of the things that’s different is that when we’re gone out on the water, patrolling, people up here take care of our families,” White said. “Thanks for being family up here and taking care of Coast Guard folks like they’ve been there for their entire careers. It’s certainly maybe the best thing about Alaska- it’s like you got an almost instant family.”