Friday, I was lucky enough to join a contingent from the Tri-Cities at the Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington D.C. for the Commandant Change of Command Ceremony.
Admiral Paul Zukunft’s four-year stint as the top-ranking Coast Guard official had come to an end, and Karl Schultz — who attended last year’s Coast Guard Festival in Grand Haven — was taking over.
The morning of the ceremony dawned clear and hot – unmercifully hot and humid. The ladies in our group dressed in airy dresses while the guys groaned into their long pants, neckties and suit coats.
We loaded into a fleet of Ubers and wound our way through the Washington D.C. traffic, eventually arriving at Gate 4 of the Coast Guard Headquarters. There we began a series of security checks and got out first glimpse of the Secret Service officers scattered across the premise.
In order to beat the crowds, we had arrived nearly two hours before the start of ceremony, so we had plenty of time to wander around the grounds. That’s when we encountered more Secret Service agents, a few of them carrying firearms that were straight out of a Hollywood action film.
A giant tent had been erected for the occasion, with nearly 2,000 white folding chairs lined up facing the stage. Those seats eventually filled up with civilians, Coast Guard personnel, ambassadors from more than a dozen foreign countries, most members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirsjen Nielsen, Vice President Mike Pence, and lastly, President Donald Trump.
We didn’t know President Trump would be present, and his entrance created quite a stir in the tent. Necks craned to catch a glimpse of the POTUS, and the Coast Guard Band struck up “Hail to the Chief” as President Trump made his way to the podium.
President Trump’s attendance made for a memorable event for all of us in attendance, but it didn’t overshadow the true reason for the ceremony — to pay tribute to Admirial Zukunft. He guided the Coast Guard to unparalleled public perception during the historic hurricane season of 2017. He also petitioned President Trump for increased funding, which Trump provided in the 2018 budget — The Coast Guard will receive $10.5 billion this year, of which $750 million will go to the design and construction a new heavy icebreaker set for delivery in 2023.
We also honored Admiral Schultz as he ascended to the head of the Coast Guard.
Despite the oppressive heat — nearly everyone under the tent wore our their arm fanning themselves with their program — the ceremony was one none of us will soon forget.
Speaking at the ceremony, President Trump noted the Coast Guard's role in last year’s historic hurricane season, praising the efforts of both Zukunft and Schultz: “Our Coast Guard — heroes they are — saved almost 12,000 American lives in that short period.
“Many service members left their own homes and families to plunge out of helicopters, wade through perilous waters, care for the wounded, and rescue the stranded — of which there were many. Your selfless courage has earned the gratitude of our nation.
“With this ceremony, we proudly pass the helm of the United States Coast Guard to the man who oversaw those emergency operations, Admiral Karl Schultz. As Commander of the Coast Guard Atlantic Area, Admiral Schultz took responsibility for the Coast Guard response across the Gulf Coast, the Atlantic and the Caribbean.
“I have complete confidence that Karl will carry out his new mission with the same talent, strength, and devotion that have characterized his entire career.”
Trip to Washington D.C. as a whole was a whirlwind adventure
I flew out of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport at 6:45 Thursday morning — meaning I set my alarm for 4 a.m. A quick flight to Detroit was followed up by a second flight to Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C.
While in our nation’s capital, we stayed at the trendy River Inn in Foggy Bottom, near George Washington University. The hotel was a 30-minute walk to the Lincoln Memorial, which was my first stop on my Friday afternoon walking tour.
In retrospect, I should have hopped on a sightseeing bus tour. Instead, I wandered around on my own, visiting the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Memorial, the World War II memorial, got glimpses of the White House and the capital building, walked through the National Archive (think the movie “National Treasure”) to check out the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; and finally, wandered through the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum.
The monuments were incredible — much larger than I had expected and hard to put into words if you haven’t seen them yourself. I had just read a few books on World War II, so that expansive monument was especially moving.
I’d love to have spent more time exploring the monuments and museums — it’s way more than you can see in a day — but I ran out of time on Thursday, and Friday was booked solid with the change of command ceremony, a dinner at the Army Navy Club, and an evening spent at the Marine Barracks Washington D.C., know as 8th & I. There, we watched the Marine Corps band and the Silent Drill Team thrill the audience with an incredible performance of music and precision rifle drill exhibition.
We didn’t get back to our hotel until well after 10 p.m., and I had to fly out at 7 the next morning — had to get home in time to watch my daughter, Miriam, perform in Grand Haven High School’s “Legally Blonde: The Musical.” That meant another 4 a.m. wake-up call to make sure I was at the airport in plenty of time to catch my flight.
I’d like to thank Mike Smith, executive director of the Coast Guard Festival, for organizing the trip and for including me. I was extremely honored to be a part of Grand Haven’s contingent at the change of command ceremony.
Most of us in Grand Haven harbor a healthy respect for the U.S. Coast Guard, but this trip took that respect to the next level for me. To be in the presence of the Coast Guard’s most influential men and women was humbling, and to hear their stories was inspirational.
There’s going to be plenty more chances to honor the Coast Guard this year. On June 13, a ceremony will be held in Grand Haven to remember the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the Escanaba.
It was also announced that the current Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba — which is stationed in Boston — will visit Grand Haven for this year’s festival. The 2018 Coast Guard Festival takes place July 27 through Aug. 5.