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FEATURE STORY: Taking charge

March 9, 2015

Rough weather, fatigue, hunger, long hours; these are all conditions Coast Guard service members know well. It is ultimately the responsibility of one person to train, prepare and lead the crew to be successful under these common scenarios – the officer-in-charge.

It is from their hard work, prior experience and dedication to service that officers-in-charge acquire the ability to excel in their positions, become OIC and lead their units during the toughest of times.

“When I was in middle school my older brother was looking at attending the Coast Guard Academy,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Corbin Ross, officer-in-charge of Coast Guard Station Annapolis, Maryland. “My father was a Sea Bee in Vietnam, and always wished he would have joined the Coast Guard.”

Growing up, Ross’ family would go diving on the Oregon coast, and they would often stop to visit Coast Guard stations.

“My favorite stations were Yaquina Bay and Depoe Bay,” said Ross.

Beginning at a young age, Ross admired the crews aboard the 44-foot Motor Lifeboats out in the surf.

“At the age of 13, I decided that I’d drive one in the surf someday,” said Ross. “I began working hard on my schooling, taking advanced classes and attending summer school so that I could compete for acceptance to the Coast Guard Academy.”

About halfway through his junior year of high school he began to understand the path he would need to take to accomplish his goal. He realized if he went to the academy, he’d never be stationed where there would be a 44-foot Motor Lifeboat, let alone ever pilot one in the surf. So, he decided to enlist, and three months after graduating high school, he arrived at basic training.

As many service members learn, you don’t always get your first choice of billets. That was a lesson Ross learned when he received orders to the Coast Guard Cutter Active right out of basic training.

When he arrived at the Active, he knew one thing – he wanted to be at Station Yaquina Bay. Aboard, he learned he needed to be a seaman apprentice for six months before moving up to seaman, and another six months before moving up in rank again to 3rd class petty officer. So that’s what he did, and he worked to become a boatswain’s mate.

“I reported to the Active in December of 1996, and on Jan. 1, 1998, I pinned on third class,” said Ross. “I was working as fast as the Coast Guard would allow me to, all so I could get to a station, learn to drive a 44 and maybe someday be in charge.”

Ross’ drive and dedication were obvious to his command. So when a 3rd class billet became available around the same time of his advancement, they decided to keep him aboard instead of reassigning him to a different unit.

Eventually he was able to put together his wish list of assignments for his transfer. At the top, Yaquina Bay.

“Somehow, my voice was heard, my determination had paid off and I received orders to Station Yaquina Bay,” said Ross. “I was ecstatic! When I arrived, I quickly began working hard to show the command I had what it takes to become a surfman and one day an officer-in-charge. Apparently, I impressed someone, because just six months or so after reporting to my dream job, I was selected to leave it.”

Station Yaquina Bay had a smaller satellite station 12 miles north, Station Depoe Bay. As the command was trying to demonstrate the need to make Station Depoe Bay it’s own unit, they were sending people who they believed would do well with little supervision.

“Unbeknownst to me, this was the best move of my career,” said Ross. “I learned what an officer-in-charge was, what it took to become a surfman, and I finally got the chance to drive motor lifeboats. I certified at Station Depoe Bay as a coxswain and boarding officer and began to learn the leadership qualities necessary to take command of a unit.”

At his next unit, Station Tillamook Bay, Oregon, Ross received the mentorship of Master Chief Jim Bankson and Master Chief Mike Leavitt. Ross worked his way from petty officer 2nd class as boat keeper, through weapon’s petty officer, to the first lieutenant, then the training petty officer and finally the operations petty officer.

With their leadership and Ross’ drive, the two mentors worked to get Ross ready for his first officer-in-charge pre-board at the Pacific Northwest’s 13th District.

“The board process is difficult,” said Chief Warrant Officer Paul Curtis, who has served on the OIC board for more than 50 members. “It’s very formal and professional. The panel members are esteemed experts in engineering, work-life, finance and procurement, and they are seasoned officers-in-charge.”

Review boards on average last about two hours and may include up to eight members who take turns hammering questions at the aspiring OIC.

“They’re all dressed perfectly in trops, your record is strewn about the table, you’re holding your cover and you state your name and what you are there for,” added Curtis. “You don’t even sit down until you’re invited to do so by the board president and then immediately the grilling starts. Then for the next two hours, you’re under the microscope.”

“This was a very difficult task I spent months preparing for,” said Ross. “I studied every manual I could find and spent hours trying to learn what I believed was important. I appeared before the board for the first time in Seattle, Washington, with plenty of confidence and a sharp uniform. Apparently, that’s the only thing I had because I quickly realized I didn’t have the knowledge. When I left the board three hours later, the only item marked as satisfactory on my form was appearance.”

Keeping his goal in mind, Ross didn’t let the board break his stride, returning to his studies and working to once again sit in the district board. The second time around he was given the board’s blessing to move onto the next step, the Pacific Area officer-in-charge review board, which was held one month later.

“I took the month to study every night, memorizing every manual and every message that came out knowing this was why I joined the Coast Guard,” added Ross. “I put everything I had into that month.”

After 12 years of Coast Guard service Ross was unanimously voted as eligible to receive his multi-mission ashore certification.

“I had obtained my certification, but I knew I needed to be selected for an executive petty officer position so I could gain command experience,” Ross said. “I worked hard to finish out my tour at Station Tillamook Bay, advancing to the rank of chief petty officer.”

When it was time for Ross to transfer, he received his first choice for an executive petty officer position at Station Noyo River at Fort Bragg, California.

“I spent those three years learning about command presence, command climate, and senior leadership as I worked through my tour,” said Ross.

In May of 2011, Ross received his first position as OIC. Although his time since the cutter Active has been completely at surf stations, he has spent the last four years at Coast Guard Station Annapolis, Maryland.

“I was awarded this amazing position and have enjoyed every minute, learning from the good and the bad since the day I offered my relief,” added Ross.

Now nearing the end of his tour, he is hoping to head back to the surf community and become the next OIC of Coast Guard Station Chatham in Massachusetts.

“My childhood dream of becoming an officer-in-charge of a surf station have not quite come true yet, but I am confident in the next few weeks I will be selected to command my first surf station,” Ross said. “At that point, I will only have one goal left. I need to advance to master chief so I can pay it forward and do what Master Chief Jim Bankson and Master Chief Mike Leavitt did for me – provide mentorship to our next band of senior enlisted leadership.”

It is with this devotion to duty Ross grew to become an OIC, and he has learned how to properly train, prepare and lead his crew during the toughest of times. It is with this devotion that Ross and others like him will pass the torch by becoming mentors to those who demonstrate the same drive and ambition.

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