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Rob Nakama’s unique experience proved essential in Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and on the ground stateside during Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon disaster

By Hilary Reeves

Just two weeks after accepting the U.S. Coast Guard’s congratulations on a military career spanning almost three decades, Rob Nakama drove from Washington D.C. to Seattle to join Foss Maritime as the company’s Manager of Contingency Planning and Emergency Response.

“I’ve been in the military for the majority of my life; the transition has been surreal,” he said. “After 26 years of service, the absence of military customs and courtesies, actually wearing different clothing each work day, and watching national disasters and maritime operations on television and knowing I wouldn’t be a part of them anymore have been sobering.”

Nakama was born in Hawaii, growing up on the island of Maui as the son of a taro farmer who worked for the Aloha Poi Factory. His stepfather served in the Coast Guard, moving the family to North Carolina when Nakama was 10, and then back to Hawaii during his high school years.

“I grew up around many Coast Guardsmen, and I was able to see some of the missions they performed,” he said. “It was then that I knew I wanted to serve in the Coast Guard.”

Nakama and other workers hoist a buoy onto a ship.
Nakama’s first assignment was aboard the USCGC Cowslip, a seagoing buoy tender homeported in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Nakama enlisted as a senior in high school. In 1990, two days after graduation, he arrived in Cape May, New Jersey for bootcamp. His first assignment: aboard the USCGC Cowslip, a seagoing buoy tender homeported in Portsmouth, Virginia. He served on Deck Force and was part of a team responsible for the maintenance and repair of all Aids to Navigation (navigational buoys). He advanced to Seaman, assumed the role of Leading Seaman, and eventually decided to become a Coast Guard engineer as an Electrician’s Mate.

“Some of my most vivid memories of the Coast Guard are of Search & Rescue missions,” he said. “I can still hear the cries of a wife on the marine radio whose husband was incapacitated, their vessel severely damaged by hurricane-force winds in the mid-Atlantic. It would take the Cowslip about one full day to get to the vessel. The woman kept on a communication schedule, and each time, her voice was desperate: ‘Help, Coast Guard. Get here as fast as you can.’ When we arrived, the sailboat was still floating, but it was in shambles.”

Coast Guard ship anchors near a lighthouse.
The USCGC Cowslip (WLB-277) is a 180-foot (55 m) sea going buoy tender (WLB)

When Nakama advanced to Electrician’s Mate Third Class, he was transferred to the Naval Engineering Support Unit in Portsmouth, where he joined a team responsible for the maintenance and repair of all shipboard electrical and electronic equipment for all Coast Guard cutters and small boats homeported throughout the Eastern seaboard.

In 1998, Nakama decided to exit active duty and return home to Hawaii as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, where he served in Honolulu as an Electrician’s Mate Second Class on the USCGC Sassafras, another seagoing buoy tender, and then the USCGC Walnut. In June of 1999, Nakama applied to the Coast Guard’s Reserve Officer Candidate Indoctrination program and was selected. He later applied for an Extended Active Duty contract at the Fifth Coast Guard District’s Aids to Navigation Waterways Management Division, where he began as an Aids to Navigation Officer and Fifth District Light House Manager.

In 2002, Nakama was promoted to Lieutenant, and was integrated into the permanent active duty corps. For the next two years, he served at the Atlantic Area Marine Safety Division’s Marine Environmental Response Branch.

Nakama stands in uniform in a United States Army camp.
Nakama at Camp Arifjan, a United States Army installation in Kuwait which accommodates elements of the US Air ForceUS NavyUS Marine Corps and US Coast Guard.

“I assisted in the creation and management of the Coast Guard’s Redeployment Assistance & Inspection Detachment, a program responsible for hazardous material inspections in the Middle East in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom,” he said.

Also, Nakama assisted in the management of the region’s Incident Management Assist Team, a deployable-ready cadre that provides emergency support during national-level incidents.

In June of 2004, Nakama was transferred to the Marine Safety Office in Juneau, Alaska, and served as the Chief of the Marine Environmental Protection Branch, and then later as the Assistant Chief of Port Operations. He was responsible for 250 environmental compliance inspections of Federally regulated fixed and mobile bulk oil maritime facilities, and the regulatory permitting of more than 40 million pounds a year of commercial explosives and other hazardous materials destined for Alaska’s mining operations.

“I also oversaw response operations of any oil spilled or chemical released which occurred on any navigable waterway throughout Juneau and its neighboring ports in southeast Alaska,” he said.

Still in Alaska, Nakama was selected for temporary duty as the Deputy Operations Section Chief at the Area Field Office in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina’s recovery phase.

A sign on a U.S. highway reads "Welcome to Plaquemines Parish".
Nakama served as Deputy Operations Section Chief at the Area Field Office in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina’s recovery phase.

“My duties often took me to Plaquemines Parish, the area where the hurricane made landfall,” he said. “Not a single structure remained. Any trees that ‘survived’ were stripped of all their leaves and small branches. No grass, weeds, or other greenery remained, only dirt and sand. I was granted authorized access to the Ninth Ward, the location of the infamous levee breach. Houses were moved off their foundations. Upon viewing the interiors of a few of these homes, I saw severe water damage to people’s personal belongings, and the dirt lines on walls left by the flood, which in effect were telling a story of lost family memories and lives.”

In 2008, he was transferred to Sector Honolulu to fill a temporary position as Deputy Chief of the Logistics Department until his eventual internal rise to Chief of the Contingency Planning & Reserve Force Readiness Staff.

“I spearheaded the contingency planning of all events under Sector Honolulu’s area of responsibility: Presidential holiday visits, hurricane and tsunami events, and preparedness exercises with federal, state and local agencies and various maritime port companies, including Young Brothers,” he explained.

In 2010, Nakama was called to temporary duty at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington D.C. to temporarily serve under the National Incident Commander in the Interagency Solutions Group during Deepwater Horizon. In 2011, he was assigned as the Director of Auxiliary for the Fourteenth U.S. Coast Guard District, responsible for the operational and mission support management of more than 400 Auxiliary members throughout Hawaii, Guam, Saipan, and American Samoa.

“I was directly responsible for ensuring members were deployable-ready and Auxiliary air and sea assets were operationally capable through certification and qualification programs,” he said.

A granite memorial reads, "Honoring the people and remembering the events that occurred August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina".
Nakama returned to New Orleans over the coming years, encouraged to visit neighborhoods as they rebuilt.

In 2012, Nakama was temporarily recalled to New Orleans to serve as Planning Section Chief for response operations stemming from Hurricane Isaac.

“I was able to return to New Orleans several times in 2014 and 2015 as well,” he said. “Each time, I could remember what it was like just after Hurricane Katrina. To see the city rebuilt, the streets crowded with laughter and good times made me feel good. I’ve even returned to a few of the neighborhoods just outside of the city limits where there were seas of blue roofs and temporary RV parks. It was great to see repaired homes occupied again.”

He was later transferred back to Coast Guard Headquarters to serve as Team Lead for one of its Exercise Support Teams – groups responsible for designing and facilitating exercises for Coast Guard units. After 26 years, he retired, and arrived in Seattle in February of 2016.

Nakama’s education includes a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration, and Master’s Degrees in both Quality Systems Management and Health Science, with a specialization in Emergency and Disaster Management. He is also a certified Type 2 Planning Section Chief, and a Type 3 Incident Commander under the Incident Command System. Nakama became certified as a Master Exercise Practitioner in 2011 under the direction of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Emergency Management Institute. In 2015, he became a Certified Emergency Manager from the International Association of Emergency Managers.

“I’m currently responsible for (Foss Maritime’s) overall compliance with Federal, state and international oil spill response, prevention and contingency-plan requirements for all company and subsidiary vessels, two shipyard, and our fueling facility in Portland, Oregon,” he said.

A room full of people deep in their work, most wearing vest with different titles.
A recent Foss incident command exercise brings together cross-functional teams responsible for quick action and recovery to ensure readiness if called upon

Nakama’s other responsibilities include maintaining the response readiness of Foss employees through the conduct of drills and exercises, which often include participation from the U.S. Coast Guard and state oil spill prevention regulatory agencies.

“What I really like most about my position is the continual learning of regulatory requirements from an industry perspective,” he said. “I’m now on the ‘other side’ of the table. My greatest challenge has been the transition from a military organization which I was intimately familiar with to starting a new career with a company which has its own policies, procedures and staff.”

Nakama has spent the past weeks creating new training modules for personnel, with duties relating to spill prevention and response, and the responsibilities of the company’s Incident Command System.

“I’ve made it my quest to meet as many fellow employees as possible, the regions they work in, and to learn about their unique operational environments and design training appropriate to their respective areas,” he said.

The one thing Nakama would change about his past is the fact that his formal education got off to a slower start.

“I’m most proud of earning two Master’s degrees,” he said. “I’m the only one from both parents’ families to have attained such an accomplishment. I would have liked to have studied harder in high school for better grades so that I would’ve had the opportunity to attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.”

Nakama poses at a vista with his wife, left, and two sons, right.
Nakama with his wife and two sons.

Nakama’s wife is also from Hawaii, and the couple have an adult daughter, who lives on Oahu, and two sons attending school.

“We’re adapting well to the rain and the winters (in Seattle),” Nakama laughed. “I think our duty station in Juneau helped.”

Since retiring, Nakama hasn’t had much time for another passion of his: soccer.

“I’ve been playing soccer since high school,” he said. “While on active duty, I was able to play soccer competitively and recreationally. Since retiring, I haven’t had the time or opportunity to play soccer, and hope to find a league soon. Retirement has added 20 pounds to my weight.”

His plans for the future, he said, are simple: “to help my Foss Maritime family make our company an admirable leader in maritime service to the nation.”