Coast Guard Cutter (CGC)Douglas Munro (WHEC-724), the last of the 378-foot Hamilton class high-endurance cutter fleet, is being decommissioned today in a ceremony in its homeport of Kodiak, Alaska after 49 years of service.
It should be no surprise, for those who know me, that this development is stirring a hurricane of emotions within me.
I served aboard the Munro from October 31, 2005 to June 1, 2008. I was onboard for three Alaska fisheries patrols (ALPATs), two drug interdiction patrols (SouthPats), and three Tailored Annual Cutter Training (TACT) sessions; two in San Diego, and the final in Honolulu.
We responded to two major search and rescue (SAR) cases with the sinking of the F/V Ocean Challenger in 2006 and the largest at-sea rescue in Alaskan history with the F/V Alaska Ranger on Easter Sunday 2008.
On our first SouthPat, we conducted a drug bust at sea that turned up two metric tons of cocaine. On our second SouthPat a year later, we crossed the equator and I crossed over from my previously-unrealized life as a Pollwog into the rest of my existence as a Shellback via an initiation process that, by 2007, was largely defanged and softened, but was still fun altogether.
In my time onboard, I visited places like Golfito, Costa Rica and Vasco Nunez de Balboa, Panama, Dutch Harbor, Alaska and San Diego, California with regularity. We spent four days in Canada, three days in Lima, Peru, and two very odd, destructive days in the relatively desolate Adak, Alaska.
In September 2007, we left our homeport of Alameda and moved to Kodiak; a move that had been in the works since before I had ever received my orders.
My own history with the Munro is, like I imagine it is for each and every person who ever served aboard her in her 49 glorious years, far more than just the statistics of my stay; the days at sea, the places visited, the lives saved, or the drugs intercepted.
It’s the people I served with, the memories we created, the stories we share, and the lessons we learned. Who I am today, if any of you reading this happen to know me and, just as well, express any sort of affinity for me, is in large part due to my time aboard that cutter.
My first employee review from my time on the Munro is still, to this day, the most scathing breakdown of the lazy, full of shit human that I was at the time it was filed. I had no discipline, no accountability, and a work ethic so small, you would have had to use a $27 million electron microscope to find it.
I keep it close at all times because it’s a reminder of how far I came — how far I had to go — just to be me.
My character reconstruction didn’t happen in bootcamp, like it does for so many, nor did it happen at OS (Operations Specialist) “A” School directly after boot. I was able to successfully bullshit my way through both of those.
No, my character reconstruction occurred on the Munro. It happened because people like Chris Martinez and Luke Cutburth, like the rest of my shop in CIC (Combat Information Center), were sick of my bullshit and worked to have me removed from the shop.
Not a full month into my time onboard, I was no longer plying my trade as an OS. I was instead washing dishes and cleaning the mess deck with non-rates who were there as warm bodies for dirty work until they decided what they wanted their careers to be.
My redemption occurred because FS1 Walters, who was temporarily in charge of me, would sit down with me every day between lunch and dinner in the empty mess deck and would counsel me as I sorted through my thoughts and troubles. We worked on me and we took it one step at a time.
It worked and I turned myself around.
When the patrol ended and the ship was secured in Alameda, I was summoned back to CIC by Chief Cutburth and asked if I was ready to be an OS again. I could have cried, and perhaps later I did, but in the interim, I smiled large, exclaimed “yes” with jubilation and pride, and rejoined my shop, ready for what was to come.
I credit Martinez with a lot of who I am. I admired who he was as a man, a father, a husband, and a co-worker and still do. I hated him to my core on that first patrol because he was so hard on me, but it changed me for the better and, to this day, there are few who have been more supportive of my career and endeavors than him. We haven’t seen each other in almost 13 years, but it hasn’t changed a thing. He’s still someone I look up to and that’s important to have, I think.
When I reminisce about my time on Munro, I think of Martinez and Chief Cutburth, Kelly “Nadine” Randall, Erin Lopez, Daniel Roybal, Brad Armstrong, James Griffiss, Josh Vanskike, Joe “Sleeping Bear” Castro, Richard “Big Moose” Wilkerson, Mikie Guerrero, Carson Russell, Georgina Pacheco, Johnny Martinez, Keith “Keith Cargill” Cargill, Lorin “Fish” Fisher, Scott Plichta, Paul Pleiss, Cleavon “Angry Rob” Roberts, Chris Fajkos, Ray Fraga, and one of my best friends on the planet, Kris “Gordo” Gordon.
I’ve maintained contact with most of those people, even if it is via the slender thread of social media. But their impact on me is never far from my mind.
The Munro brought us all together. It was a motley crew of misfits from all over the country and we were all at different stages of our careers. We had little in common other than the gargantuan task of having to make life at sea work. That was our tie-in. Our bond was formed in the evening hour conversations in CIC — the jokes, the pranks, and the behavior that would not jive with the climate of today for reasons we’ll just keep to ourselves. For those who have lived this life, you know.
The end of the Munro comes nine years after I, myself, departed active duty service. I was always comforted in knowing that Munro was out there, still sailing and still serving. Our move to Kodiak was designed to lengthen the ship’s career and guarantee her status as the last 378 in existence and it did.
The end of her final patrol last month and the end of her service today is yet another sobering reminder, in a year chalk-full of them, that all things must pass.
I had always assumed that I would be able to walk across the brow one more time, render a salute to the flag and the quarterdeck, and walk around my ship one more time. Because of the pandemic and the ceremony today, that opportunity is now gone. I’ll be watching online today, knowing full-well that this is as close as I’ll ever get.
After today, the ship will undergo a process that strips it of its color, its name, and its innerworkings. From there, it will be tied up, likely in Seattle — the hometown of its namesake — and wait until it, like all 378s before it, is sold to another country and put back into service with new colors, a new name, and new technology.
There had been talk about the last 378 being turned into a museum of some sort back in 2007, but that does not appear to have come to fruition. I suppose we’ll see.
One of my favorite things to do while underway would be to stand on the fantail of the ship and peer out at the sizable wake we left in the ocean. It was an opportunity to contemplate not just where we were heading, but where we had been, and how many times this trail had been blazed before. Unlike a path on land, beaten into existence by frequent travelers, the ocean has no memory of those who came before.
Were we the first to ever touch that particular spot? Were we doing it our own way?
When we would have swim calls and jump into the warmth of the Southern Pacific, I never felt so small in something so massive and seemingly endless. There’s no bottom to touch and no shore to swim to. It was vast and open and there were totally sharks somewhere. That’s why our makeshift lifeguards had rifles.
It was thrilling and horrifying. More the first than the second.
I’ll never get to do those things again. Not that way. But I’m happy to say that I did do them and, compared to most people, I’m one of the fortunate few.
The Munro’s motto is Honoring the past by serving the present. I can think of no more fitting a motto as I, and thousands of others, carry on our stories and lessons from our time aboard the finest cutter in the fleet in our wake as we honor our past, in service of a brighter tomorrow.