Making Coast Guard history

Former Richmond native Joseph M. Vojvodich has made history as he begins a new chapter in his Coast Guard career this month.

The son of Su Cha Vojvodich of Weirton, formerly of Richmond, and the late Joseph Vojvodich is now the first Korean American to attain the rank of rear admiral in the Coast Guard, the equivalent to a brigadier general ranking in the Army.

A 1981 graduate of Jefferson Union High School, Vojvodich made the transition during two ceremonies held June 28 in New Haven, Conn.

The first one was a change in command ceremony where Vojvodich turned over command of Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound to Capt. Edward J. Cubanski III. Vojvodich has led the sector and served as captain of the Port of Long Island Sound since June 2010.

“The change of command is rich in military tradition, where the commanding officer of the unit passes the command of the unit to the next commanding officer,” Vojvodich said of the formal event. “The crew is assembled, the prospective commanding officer requests permission from the superior officer to assume command, the incoming and outgoing commanders salute each other, and the transfer of responsibility, authority and accountability for the unit passes from one individual to the other,” he explained.

“The past three years I was the commander of Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound. I was ultimately responsible for all Coast Guard missions in Connecticut, Long Island Sound, Long Island, and 200 nautical miles seaward from land. The sector is comprised of 550 active duty members, 180 reservists, 18 civilians and 1,700 auxiliary volunteers. Many are assigned to small boat stations, aids to navigation teams, Coast Guard Cutters and a Marine Safety Detachment,” Vojvodich said.

Then came Vojvodich’s promotion to the rank of rear admiral by Rear Adm. Dan Abel, the Coast Guard First District commander, paving the way for him to next serve at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., as the program executive officer and director of acquisition programs.

The second ceremony was called a “frocking ceremony,” technically a ceremony to promote an officer to the next higher rank, according to Vojvodich, with a promotion ceremony to occur on or after the official date of the person’s promotion.

Vojvodich said since his new date of rank was July 1, it couldn’t be called a promotion ceremony on June 28.

“There are provisions that allow members to be frocked, and this is one where I would have been in between assignment on July 1, so my boss, Rear Admiral Abel in Boston, requested and received permission to hold a frocking ceremony in conjunction with the change of command. I don’t start my next assignment until later in July,” he said.

In addition to his wife, Donna, and their children, the ceremonies were witnessed by a proud delegation of local relatives. Aside from his mother, also on hand were his brother Mark, there with his wife Melissa and their 9-year-old son Mason, residents of Wellsburg; and his Uncle Dan and Aunt Peggy Vojvodich, there with their son Darren and his 6-year-old daughter Celeste, all of Richmond.

Vojvodich explained that officers are selected for the next rank at promotion boards comprised of officers senior to the members in consideration.

“The board has specific criteria to consider while reviewing the service records of individuals considered for promotion. The criteria are usually based on leadership, performance, professionalism and education, though the Commandant – the Coast Guard’s service chief – may adjust the criteria,” he said.

“For the rank of Rear Admiral, usually captains with at least three years as a captain are considered for promotion. That means about 220 to 240 of the Coast Guard’s most senior captains are considered for selection each year. Last year five individuals were selected,” he said.

Being an admiral in the Coast Guard, Vojvodich explained, is comparable to being an executive at a large corporation. The Coast Guard has 42,000 active duty members and 42 admirals.

“Admirals are asked to lead large portions of the organization,” he said. “My first assignment as an admiral will be program executive officer and director of acquisition programs, which means I will be responsible for obtaining our service’s major capital investments, such as new cutters, boats and aviation assets,” Vojvodich said.

He is grateful for the opportunity.

“It truly is an honor to be asked to continue to serve in the Coast Guard in this capacity. There is a finite duration to military service. Only 17 percent of those who serve get to call the military a ‘career’ – attainment of 20 years and a retirement.

“Each of my previous promotions brought a wonderful feeling that I could stay a little longer in the Coast Guard, again with a finite opportunity to make a difference in the lives of shipmates and for the public who we serve,” he said.

“For this particular promotion, I have had the added overwhelming feeling of gratefulness, to be able to serve in an organization that provides real value and is appreciated by the maritime public who understands the importance of the Coast Guard; to have a family who stands firmly behind every single accomplishment that I have ever had; to be raised by parents who have a strong work ethic and passed along grounded values that proved to be very congruent with Coast Guard service; and to be able to live in a country that affords so many opportunities,” Vojvodich said.

The promotion has fostered “a very introspective time” for Vojvodich.

“I have thought about the influences and influencers in my life, and how many of the events of my life could have easily gone ‘the other way’ or opened or closed different doors. Again, I feel very fortunate,” he said.

That he is the first Korean American to hold the rank brings a deep sense of appreciation as well, especially for his mother, who demonstrated great courage, he said, in leaving her country to make the journey to the United States.

“While I may be the first Korean American to attain the rank of Rear Admiral in the Coast Guard, the real tribute goes to my mother,” said Vojvodich, who noted he has received many congratulations from other Korean Americans currently in the Coast Guard. “I know that they are excited for me, but I also know that the promotion represents a significant milestone for them as well.”

It’s not the first Coast Guard ceremony where Vojvodich hasn’t thought of his mother as a source of inspiration.

It happened as well on May 12, 2012, when Vojvodich, then a captain, was awarded the National Ethnic Coalition Medal of Honor at the 26th-Annual Ellis Island Medal of Honor ceremony on Ellis Island.

“The event highlighted the diversity and opportunities of this great nation in a very patriotic setting. The one thing that really resonated with me is the courage that it must have taken for our ancestors to leave another country to come here,” Vojvodich had said in a May 2012 Herald-Star article about the honor.

“My mom left South Korea when I was a very small baby, and she did so after my dad had to leave before her,” he said of his father, who was serving in the Army when he met and married the former Su Cha Mun. “I can only think of the courage it required for my mom to leave everything that she knew in Korea to start a new life for her new family,” he said.

“For me, the evening highlighted the courage of millions of individuals like my mother,” Vojvodich had said.

He was among approximately 100 individuals to receive a NECO Medal of Honor which pays tribute to the ancestry groups that comprise America’s unique cultural mosaic. Past medalists have included six presidents as well as Nobel Prize winners and leaders of industry, education, the arts, sports and government.

Vojvodich was in the company of such well-known recipients as actress Brooke Shields, singer Frankie Valli and retired boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini.

The awards ceremony is held each May on Ellis Island and combines “pageantry, grandeur and emotion. All branches of the United States Armed Forces traditionally participate in this spectacular event. Dancers in their native costume add to the international flavor of the celebration. A gala dinner in the historic Great Hall on Ellis Island follows the moving ceremony. As a grand finale, a majestic fireworks display illuminates the sky and America’s symbol of freedom, the Statue of Liberty,” the website notes.

“The Medals of Honor recognition was one of the most patriotic events that I have ever observed. It was really a celebration of the fabric of this great nation. It took millions of courageous individuals to come to this country. It’s amazing the number of U.S. citizens who have their roots in Ellis Island,” Vojvodich said. “I am told that 40 percent of all Americans can trace their roots to Ellis Island. The evening was a celebration of many different ethnic cultures, backgrounds and upbringings. The roughly 100 folks who were honored represented all those who have experienced success in private industry, nonprofit organizations and public service. Some directly migrated from another country; others were descendants of ancestors who came to this great nation looking for opportunities for a better life for their children,” he said in the May 2012 article.

Vojvodich’s introduction to the Coast Guard came quite by accident, literally.

As he considered how a military service academy would be his best post high school education option, Vojvodich recalled how he had visited the guidance counselor’s office in search of a catalog for the U.S. Naval Academy.

“When I reached up to retrieve the Naval Academy brochure from the shelf, another catalog fell to the floor. I had to bend down to pick it up. It was a catalog for the Coast Guard Academy, which I never heard of before. ‘Save lives and stop drugs’ sounded appealing to me, and that moment was my introduction to the Coast Guard,” he said.

Vojvodich graduated with honors from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1985 in New London, Conn., with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering and was an eight-time letterman in football and indoor and outdoor track and field.

In the more than 27 years of his Coast Guard career, Vojvodich, who was promoted to the rank of captain on Aug. 1, 2006, has:

Served on four cutters – twice as commanding officer;

Earned two master of science degrees, in electrical engineering from Purdue University and in natural resource strategy from the National Defense University;

Served two tours in radio systems and network engineering;

Served two tours in major system acquisition; and

Served one tour in the Department of Homeland Security.

During his service, Vojvodich has been awarded the Legion of Merit, three Coast Guard Meritorious Service medals, three Coast Guard Commendation medals and a Coast Guard Achievement Medal, as well as several unit, team and special operations service awards.

“I have enjoyed all of my Coast Guard assignments,” Vojvodich said in the May 2012 interview. “They have afforded me opportunities to grow personally and professionally. I enjoy the missions of the Coast Guard, its culture and the people whom I’ve worked with. My current assignment is very broad in that collaboration, and partnerships are necessary precursors for success. We work extensively with other federal, state, local, industry and commercial entities with a common goal for a safe and secure maritime environment,” Vojvodich said.

(Kiaski can be contacted at