The Interview: Sally Brice-O'Hara

On eve of her retirement, Annapolis native steps into No. 1 spot at the Coast Guard

  • Sally Brice-O'Hara is an Annapolis native and Goucher College graduate who now commands thousands of ships, aircraft and personnel as the No. 2 admiral in the Coast Guard.
Sally Brice-O'Hara is an Annapolis native and Goucher… (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
April 30, 2012|By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

As the No. 2 leader of the Coast Guard, Vice Adm. — and Vice Commandant — Sally Brice-O'Hara is the chief operating officer of an organization with a $10 billion budget and 58,000 military and civilian employees, plus 31,000 volunteers.

Last week, less than a month before her own retirement, the Annapolis native and 1974 Goucher College graduate was temporarily bumped up a rung to No. 1 while her boss, Adm. Robert Papp, recovered from surgery.

Brice-O'Hara has served coast to coast as well as in Hawaii. The admiral and her husband, Robert O'Hara, live in the Annapolis area and have two grown sons.

Both sides of her family have been in Maryland "since the days of the Colonies," she said, adding that she learned to fish, crab and sail in the waters around the state capital. One of her Annapolis High School classmate was Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots coach.

Brice-O'Hara, 58, is an only child. Her father was a Navy gunner's mate, and she grew up with an appreciation of military service.

With an undergraduate degree in sociology — she would later add master's degrees from Harvard University and the National War College — Brice-O'Hara looked around for her first job. The Coast Guard caught her eye.

Why the Coast Guard?

It was an era where barriers were dropping and doors were being opened, and the Coast Guard was very progressive. We did things ahead of the other services. It was the missions, it was the size, it was the opportunity and it was a commitment of three years. That suited me just fine because I thought I would gain some job skills and then return to something else in the private sector. I really liked what I've done in the Coast Guard and so here it is, almost 38 years later. The Coast Guard's obviously been good to me.

How has the mission changed over the years?

Early in my career, we were very focused on search and rescue. Lifesaving is always the hallmark of the Coast Guard, and that's what most people think of. When I was first commissioned, we started doing armed law enforcement boardings, and that was a huge change for the American public and the Coast Guard. Today, that's commonplace. No one thinks twice about seeing the Coast Guard with sidearms when they come aboard a vessel.

We have had changes in our search-and-rescue policies. We used to take every case, so if you ran out of gasoline but you weren't in any distress we still would go and help you. But now there are commercial providers to tackle those cases.

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Coast Guard picked up new duties under the Oil Pollution Act that mandated changes in vessels and response. Following the 9/11 attacks, there were new Homeland Security missions for the Coast Guard to ensure we know what is happening on the water and that industry is taking steps to make sure that they are prepared for anyone who would do us harm. We have regulatory responsibilities, inspection responsibilities and we have an enforcement role.

What are the Coast Guard's strengths today?

We have been able to understand what the nation needs and we step forward and we get the job done. We're small, but we're very flexible.

What was your favorite assignment?

There are a lot of favorites for a lot of reasons. The most unique and priceless honor that I had was in the 14th District, where I lived in government quarters that happened to be at Diamond Head Lighthouse. The opportunity to wake up every day with the wonderful, breathtaking vista of the Pacific Ocean, at the approaches to the harbor at Honolulu, the approaches to Waikiki, there I am on the bluff, just below Diamond Head, with the lighthouse right in the yard — it's something I will never forget.

When you are stationed in the Pacific, you can't help but become so aware of the role of the Navy and the Coast Guard in World War II, with the attack of Pearl Harbor and all that followed and the significant contribution the Coast Guard made with the landings on the islands in the Pacific. In addition to being able to live in such a beautiful site, the opportunity to learn about the history and tell others about it was an honor.

My other favorite job was Training Center Cape May from 1998 to 2001. I was a captain, and I really felt I was contributing to the Coast Guard's future in that role. Cape May is the Coast Guard's only recruit training center. We were training anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 recruits each year. It was an opportunity to make significant investments and improvements in the way the center looked and to upgrade the training programs and curriculum. … And Cape May was where I was selected for flag [admiral] and so my first honors were done there. Both of our boys were born at Cape May.

Which of your assignments was an absolute bear?

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