Coast Guard changes command, keeps steady mission

Senior Chief Steve Barr beams as Captain Raymond Perry pins a medal honoring his time as officer in charge of Station Menemsha — File photo by Steve Myrick

Chief Jason Olsen took command of United States Coast Guard Station Menemsha last Thursday, in a crisp military ceremony before a large group of Coast Guard officers, enlisted men and women, veterans, Menemsha town officials, families, and friends.

Chief Olsen, who arrived two weeks ago to familiarize himself with his new command, relieved outgoing station officer in charge Senior Chief Steve Barr.

Station Menemsha includes approximately 22 coastguard men and women. Patrolling in a 47-foot motor life boat and rigid hull inflatable the station is responsible for an area that includes the waters south and west of Gay Head off the western end of Vineyard Sound.

In his comments, Captain Raymond Perry, commander of sector southeastern New England, praised Mr. Barr for successful rescue missions, high readiness awards, and maintaining a strong bond with the Island community. “Senior Chief Barr has been a great blessing for Station Menemsha, but he’s moving on to other challenges,” Captain Perry said. “Chief Olsen arrives to take on an awesome responsibility, but he’s ready.”

Senior Chief Barr spoke fondly and emotionally of his time on Martha’s Vineyard “I wouldn’t change a single thing,” he said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to be an officer in charge in any other station, or in any other community in the country.”

He also had high praise for the men and women of his unit, who stood in formation under a white tent. “You have launched for all calls, in all weather, and you have responded admirably,” he said.

Senior Chief Barr’s last official act as officer in charge was to formally read his orders to transfer to his next post, in Alameida, California. Chief Olsen followed with his orders, transferring him from a Coast Guard station in North Carolina to Chilmark. Captain Perry then presided over a brief formal exchange, relieving Senior Chief Barr of his command, and installing Chief Olsen as officer in charge of Station Menemsha.

“I’m honored to be able to serve,” Chief Olsen said in his remarks.”Rest assured, the high standards you have set for Station Menemsha, will continue.”

“Senior chief, thank you for your hard work during your tour at Station Menemsha. The high standard your crew, now my crew, has shown me over the last two weeks, is a credit to your efforts.”

New but familiar

Chief Olsen is new to New England but not its waters. One former post was the Coast Guard station in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. “I was on a ship out of there, we patrolled these waters for two years, so I’m familiar with the area,” Mr. Olsen said.

During those patrols, he developed an appreciation for the historic Coast Guard stations and lighthouses. But he did not know when he received his new assignment that the station chief’s living quarters are at the West Chop lighthouse.

“Did not know that.” Mr. Olsen said. “That was a bonus perk. It’s beautiful. One thing I love about the Northern New England area is the heritage and history of the Coast Guard. It doesn’t seem like much has changed here with the old stations. Down south there’re a lot of newer buildings. Here, they do a good job of maintaining so it feels like the old days.”

The process of becoming the officer in charge at a Coast Guard station is a rigorous three-step review. Station Menemsha was Chief Olsen’s first choice, partly because his 11-year-old son Josh, from a previous marriage, lives in East Falmouth, and his wife’s family is from New Hampshire. Chief Olsen and his wife Andrea have a one-year-old daughter, Emma.

Chief Olsen has had an impressive Coast Guard career. His first command comes after 13 years in the service.

He joined the Coast Guard to receive an education and save lives. Later, he decided to embark on a military career.

“I was 21 years old, I was doing valet parking,” Chief Oslen said. “I realized I needed to get my life started. I really wanted to concentrate on saving lives. I was originally going to do four years, so I could get my GI bill. I saw I liked it too much. I was having a great time, and as my career progressed, I learned you can take college classes, you don’t have to pay for it when you’re in.”

High standards

Chief Olsen inherits a station that set high standards under Senior Chief Barr. In 2007, the unit won the coveted Sumner Kimball Award, a measure of readiness that is very difficult to achieve. Of all the units in the United States that operate the 47-foot motor lifeboat, only one other unit won the Kimball award. Chief Olsen can’t wait for his chance to lead Station Menemsha in the competition, next May. “It’s going to be exciting to see how everything goes, to be on top, instead of down in the trenches,” Mr. Olsen said.

Senior chief Barr had some advice for the officer who will succeed him, in a post where the Island feels like the Coast Guard station is part of the community. “You really need to have some good people skills,” Chief Olsen said. “Which I’ve kind of seen — how many people you deal with on a day-to-day basis. I’ve met a few people already.”

On Senior Chief Barr’s watch at Station Menemsha, his unit put their readiness to the test in hundreds of operations. None was more dramatic than the response to a call that came in the middle of an August night in 2008, a report of a tugboat on fire in Buzzards Bay. The crew responded in the 47-foot motor lifeboat, and rescued three members of the tug Deluge from the burning boat. Senior Chief Barr’s command of his boat and his crew that night were cited by Captain Perry in the change of command ceremony.

The outgoing officer in charge said he will miss the Island, as he moves on to his next assignment. “Absolutely, I’m going to miss the people, that’s the biggest thing,” said Senior Chief Barr. “I’ve been working on the ocean for the last 24 years. An ocean is an ocean. It’s the people that make it. We’ve made so many good friends.”

Senior Chief Barr’s next station is in Alameida, California, near San Francisco, where he will be the boat manager for Coast Guard District 11. That will involve keeping about 77 boats ready for action. He said he would have fond memories of his time on the Vineyard.

“A lot of my crew never even heard of Martha’s Vineyard,” Senior Chief Barr said. “There’s a lot of hesitation. But everybody’s who’s come here, in my four years, they end up wanting to stay, and they beg to stay. We’ve had so many people here who’ve really fought to stay.”