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Coast Guard leader retires after 31 years

July 31, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Capt. Jim Decker had one last order to give.

After a formal change-of-command ceremony Wednesday morning at the U.S. Coast Guard facility outside Martinsburg, the hundreds of people in attendance sat apprehensively in their chairs, apparently unsure whether it would be appropriate to leave or to speak.

Decker stood before them, raised his hands and his voice and said with a smile, "You can get up."

Everyone did.

After 31 years in the Coast Guard, including four at the academy, Decker, 49, had joined the ranks of the retired. He's not quite ready to trade in his work ethic for golf clubs though, and has already started a new job with MZM Inc., a private information technology company in Washington, D.C.

With an "Aye, aye, sir" at the ceremony, Capt. Kenneth Savoie officially took over the post of commanding officer at the Coast Guard's Operations Systems Center off W.Va. 9.

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Decker shared some stories of his years on the sea - like the time he seized 54 tons of marijuana, the second largest bust in Coast Guard history.

He recalled the time 516 Haitians were found crammed on a 70-foot wooden boat. It took eight hours just to transfer them to a Coast Guard ship, Decker said.

In another instance, with help from an Air Force plane, an anti-submarine aircraft, some PanAm airliners and a nearby fishing boat, Decker coordinated the rescue of four fisherman during a sleet- and snow-filled day off the New England coast.

Tense moments in his career came when a boat loaded with oil caught fire near Key West, Fla. After rescuing the crew, Decker and his shipmates fought the blaze for more than seven hours, possibly averting an ecological disaster.

And then there was the incident aboard a Russian trawler. After finding protected species of fish on board, Decker and his crew were told to find out how many had been caught, which would help determine whether the ship should be seized or whether a fine would be imposed instead. Decker was lowered head-first into what was, at the time, a turned-off fish grinder.

Someone turned it on. "Yeah, that was a tense moment," he told the audience.

In the end, the Russians were fined $2 million and Decker returned to his wife, Vicki, and two children, Jim and Lauri, with all of his fingers intact.

During the change-of-command ceremony, Decker and Savoie (pronounced Suh-Voy) "inspected the company," which meant they walked around and looked closely at the dozen or so uniformed men and women standing to one side of the auditorium.

Later Decker read his official orders: "Detach from all duties on 31 July 2003 and proceed to your home of selection in connection with retirement."

Savoie then ceremoniously relieved Decker of his duty.

As he did with his Coast Guard job, Decker said he will continue to live in his Virginia home and commute to work.

Savoie, meanwhile, told the crowd that as he finished his graduate studies at George Washington University, he happened upon a magazine that mentioned the Coast Guard facility in Martinsburg. Like others, he said he wondered why such a center would open in West Virginia.

Since then, Savoie said he has come to realize that while the fate of the free world may not rest on what goes on in Martinsburg, a lot happens in "these cow pastures."

Classified as a government-owned but contractor-operated facility, 82 percent of the center's employees are contractors, 9 percent are federal civilian employees and 9 percent are members of the military.

One of the many duties of those at the center is staffing the 24-hour National Vessel Movement Center, or NVMC.

Started after 9/11, the NVMC keeps track of all ships that weigh 300 gross tons or more. Ships must report 96 hours in advance if they plan to enter any of the United States' 361 ports.

On an average day, 600 to 700 reports come in, including updates. Along with destination, a ship must report its crew and cargo.

Before 9/11, such data was reported to pertinent port captains. Then, ships only had to give 24 hours notice that they planned to enter a U.S. port.

The Coast Guard center opened in 1991. Decker took command on July 16, 1999.

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