USCG Sector Juneau Commander Capt. Stephen White stands before a Coast Guard mural in the lobby of the Federal Building. White is retiring after 31 years of service. (Klas Stolpe / KINY)
Juneau, Alaska (KINY) – For 31 years United States Coast Guard Sector Juneau Commander Capt. Stephen R. White has been involved in keeping our waters and those who travel on them or live near them safe.
White will retire in a Change of Command Ceremony, being honored along with incoming commander Capt. Darwin A. Jensen, at the Station Juneau dock on July 7, at 12:30 p.m.
“Yeah, it’s it’s been pretty crazy,” White said of the flurry of activity in the days leading up to his departure. “We were just down to Ketchikan talking to a lot of the partners and Coast Guard units down there and state and federal partners and the ferry system, but it’s kind of nostalgic after spending a lot of time up here in Alaska to be kind of reaching the end here.”
White and his family will stay in Juneau.
“My love for Alaska has not changed,” he said. “And we’re dropping anchor right here in Juneau. I’m going to go to work over at the marine exchange of Alaska, probably sometime in September.”
White said he came from the great maritime state of Idaho.
“That’s where I was raised and went from there to the University of Utah for a couple of years,” he said. “Somebody there told me about the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut. I didn’t even really know a lot about the Coast Guard and ended up going out there. I was really interested in playing football out there. Man I just developed a passion and a love for what the Coast Guard does, especially for doing it on the sea being on ships. And my first tour out Academy was Kodiak, Alaska, and that really set me for operating in this beautiful environment that challenges in all kinds of ways.”
White’s replacement is also from Idaho.
“In fact, we were just a couple towns over from each other,” White said. “Alaska is divided up into two sectors, sector Juneau, which covers between Cordova and Yakutat south to the Canadian border, and then sector Anchorage, which kind of covers Western Alaska and Gulf Alaska north. Sector Anchorage commander is Capt. Leanne Lusk. She also is from Idaho. So we kind of have a little Idaho invasion going here.”
White graduated from the USCG Academy in 1994 with a Bachelors of Science in Management.
He first arrived in Alaska in 1996, serving on the buoy tender, USCGC FIREBUSH, patrolling around Kodiak and out west out to the Aleutians.
“We spent a lot of time in False Pass keeping that crazy waterway open and setting the buoys in there,” White said. “Just the ruggedness in the wilderness of Alaska really awed me and and I did things and saw things I just never could even imagine. It’s even hard to explain without experiencing. I remember crossing the Gulf Alaska one time when we went to Ketchikan on a buoy run to pick up buoys and ended up in a storm with 40-foot to 50-foot seas. Everybody seems to exaggerate when it comes to seas, but this was pretty legit. And I learned then that American made ships are certainly stout and able to take a lot.”
White commented that on that trip, during his four hour watch, the ship went .4 nautical miles backwards.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the career here over the last few weeks as I kind of reach the end,” White said. “There’s something that it’s kind of an intangible that really sticks out more than anything. As I think about it, and we did all kinds of adventurous things. Working some of the waterways and rescues and different things, but what really I think about is the people. As much as Alaska has been a hook, the people that it draws up here, and the kind of people that enjoy that frontier attitude. And as much as a frontier attitude, the teamwork that goes on between the different cities, different communities. The fishing community and the Coast Guard. The tourist community. The way everybody works together and bonds together is special. And I’ve thought more about the people and the relationships that I’ve built over the years than really the actual experiences.”
In 2004 White commanded the USCGC ANACAPA in Petersburg, at which time he met his wife-to-be Kerry.
“Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love Alaska too,” he said. “That was one of my four ship tours in Alaska.”
Ship tours included Deck Watch officer on the USCGC FIREBUSH out of Kodiak, Operations Officer on the USCGC ACUSHNET out of Ketchikan, Commanding Officer of the USCGC ANACAPA in Petersburg, and Commanding Officer on the USCGC ALEX HALEY in Kodiak. He also did a shore tour after 911 in Valdez.
“And of course, I’ve been here in Juneau the last five years,” he said. “So seven tours in Alaska, five different locations. But in between that I’ve really had some other amazing Coast Guard experiences.”
White served with USCG forces in the northern Arabian Gulf and into the rivers between Kuwait and Iraq, as a liaison officer with the armed forces, both US forces and British forces, the Executive Officer of Patrol Forces South West Asia, Bahrain.
He served as Executive Officer on the USCGC RELIANCE at Kittery, Maine, patrolling down south, mostly deep into the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Colombia doing drug interdiction. He also did illegal migrant interdiction in the coast of Cuba, and Dominican Republic working with the Navy and Coast Guards of Barbados, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
He has service as the Chief of International Planning at Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area Command in Portsmouth, Virginia; as CG Liaison Officer to U.S. Fleet Forces Command and U.S. Joint Forces Command; as Response Chief of Marine Safety Unit Valdez, Alaska; and Chief of Operations and Training at WLB (Buoy Tender) Project Resident Office in Marinette, Wisconsin.
While these posting allowed him to see a lot of the world he reflected back on an earlier trip.
“Going back to the academy time we were on the our tall sailing ship Eagle,” he said. “We sailed that over to Europe and sailed around Europe on that. And that was a that was quite an experience too. But I don’t think any of the sailing anywhere compares to what we have up here in Alaska. It really is the most beautiful and challenging. The current and the winds, the way the weather changes, the rocky shores, the remoteness and lack of resources up here and just the vast area.”
White said he was proud to have operated from the Canadian US border all the way up into the Arctic and the Russian and United States boundary line.
“In the 90s we were seizing Russian boats that were illegally fishing in our waters when that was a big problem,” he said. So it’s been great.”
White also had shore assignments with the Navy in Virginia. He worked on the Atlantic area staff as Chief of International Planning. He studied at the Naval War College in Newport Rhode Island and earned a Master of Arts Degree in National Security and Strategic Studies.
“And that was a that was a great experience working with our sister services there and really opened my eyes to a lot of other things,” he said. “I met some people that I’m still friends with today. And then I did an Executive Fellowship with the RAND Corporation in California, that was an opportunity to kind of look back and study some of the problems that we were facing at the time and work with academia on solutions that we looked at as groups. I’ve worked with groups that did cybersecurity. And the challenges of operating up in the Arctic. It’s just been a wonderful career with Coast Guard. I couldn’t have planned that if I tried. I couldn’t imagine it when I was a young person growing up in Idaho, what I would be doing. It’s 31 years if you count the four years at the academy that I’ve been wearing the uniform and working with the Coast Guard and it’s been so rewarding. I’ve gotten way more out of it than I put into it.”
Among White’s many personal awards are three Meritorious Service Medals, four Coast Guard Commendation Medals, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, two Coast Guard Achievement Medals, the 9/11 Medal, the Volunteer Service Medal, the Commandant’s Letter of Commendation and various other personal, campaign and unit awards.
Continued White, “It’s been a good mix of ashore and afloat. In this last three years where I’ve been the sector commander here in Juneau covering Southeast, it has been an interesting posting that I never imagined. Where we’re supervising all the vessels and small boat stations in the Marine safety attachments that operate here in Southeast Alaska. While I’ve been it’s been great to work so closely with those units and I’ve snuck trips here and there just because I really enjoy being out on some of the boats and small boats. And it just charges me up to see the young men and women of the Coast Guard and the things they do on a daily basis. It has just been a fantastic voyage.”
“It’s been a great opportunity to even been able to get on some of the commercial boats out there. Of course, we work closely with the cruise ship industry and the mining industry up here. And our partners that do so much work, the Alaska State Troopers, NOAA and NMFS, among other, and just the different cities and what they have. So I spend very little time actually sitting in an office. It was great to be out and about and building those relationships. I equate it to putting treasures in your treasure chest. Each person is like another treasure and the treasure chest is overflowing after all the time up here.”
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
Q – What does it mean to you when you put on that uniform?
A – it’s about service. It’s not about the pay or the experience. It’s the Coast Guard’s missions and being able to provide the public a service.
Q – What changes have the Coast Guard undergone, if any during your tenure?
A – Not only modernizing and getting smarter but I think our workforce has really changed. We are more accepting. There were 13% females in my graduating class from the Academy, and now it’s about 50%. I’ve seen the workforce changes, not just females, but as we become more diverse, we become much smarter, and a much more modern Coast Guard. That’s really made us more prolific at working with others.
Q – Sometimes modernization also becomes less personal. How does the coast guard continue to integrate into communities?
A – I think the Coast Guard is still very personal. I think we’ve also shifted where I think we used to be more tight knit within the Coast Guard. Now we’ve integrated better into the communities. If you go to a baseball game, or something, there’s probably a Coast Guard person out there coaching or umpiring or the kids are all on the same teams. We used to get together for Coast Guard events but now we’re more integrated with the communities. And that’s one of the great things about Southeast Alaska is that it’s special that way, you’re not just serving with some shipmates and their families and getting tight with them, but you really integrate into communities more.
Q – What advice do you have to the young women and men about to start, or are considering, Coast Guard careers?
A – Don’t lose the day, meaning enjoy every single day. The people you’re around and the mission you’re doing is amazing. I’ve met a lot more people who have done a four-year-shift in the Coast Guard that have said, ‘Man, I wish I would have done longer’ or ‘I wish I would have done 20 years’ than I have met who said ‘Man that was best decision I have ever made getting out of the Coast Guard.’ So don’t be always thinking the grass is greener and enjoy every day because there are so many rich experiences to have out there.
Q – Looking back is there anything you would do differently that might have made your tenure a little better?
A – I think I got lucky by seizing the day. I will say my career didn’t necessarily go the way I planned it. Maybe I wanted to get transferred to some other place at a certain time, or a different ship or something. I’m glad my plan never worked out. Because the way it all worked out has just been wonderful. Regardless of what I ever thought about something when I was going there it ended up being the right place. I I think you just got to kind of trust that everything’s gonna work out and make the most out of where you are and whoever you’re with.
Q – What do you think the Coast Guard’s role is going to be in the future?
A – If you look at the amount of goods that travel by water – 90% of our our goods and services arrive water – and you look at the people that are recreating on the water and you look at the protein sources and the fuel sources that are out in the water, there’s always going to be a need for the Coast Guard. Just to make sure that stuff remains viable and the people remain safe. So unless we somehow find a way not to operate on the water, and I only see activity increasing and tourism getting bigger on the water, I don’t see the Coast Guard going away but remaining important to the maritime industry.
Q – What would you like to say to Juneau and the other communities that have hosted and will host and will host Coast Guard personnel.
A – That’s like saying ‘what do you want to say to your family’ because Alaska has been a family to the Coast Guard. Our history is so rich. When the flag came to Alaska, that first delegation for the United States that came on a Revenue Cutter, which was the beginning of the Coast Guard. We have been so tied to Alaska as a service ingrained into the community it’s really like what would you want to say to your family? And I think you want to say, ‘Hey, I love you, and thank you it’s been wonderful.” And I think it’s going to continue to be that way.
Q – What are you gonna do out in the wilds of the semi-retired when you might not get saluted anymore?
A – I’d like to think that I’m going cold turkey but I’m not. I’m going to work at the at the Marine Exchange of Alaska which is still very involved in the maritime environment and works closely with the Coast Guard. I’m still going to be involved and I think that’s helping with my transition emotionally and mentally. I still get to get to work with the great people that work on the water and still focus on keeping things safe and protected out there.
Above – The wedding of Kerry Miller and Stephen White during White’s posting in Petersburg as commanding officer of the USCGC ANACAPA. Below – The USCGC ANACAPA in Petersburg.