LCDR Joshua Branthoover (l.) takes command of Kukui from CDR Raymond Reichl (r.) while Admiral N.A. Moore looks on. (KCAW/Woolsey)

The Coast Guard cutter Kukui has a new commanding officer. A change of command ceremony was held aboard the Sitka-based buoy tender on the afternoon of June 30, in the open air, and the ship’s outgoing commander was commended for his service during a difficult three years.

KCAW’s Robert Woolsey attended, and sent this audio postcard.

Semper Paratus plays

To the stirring strains of “Semper Paratus,” Commander Raymond J. Reichl turned over the helm of Kukui to Lt. Commander Joshua W. Branthoover.

Held aboard the buoy deck of the 225-foot ship, the ceremony is almost as old as the Coast Guard itself.

Reichl reads, “From: Coast Guard Personnel Command to Cdr. Raymond Reichl. Subject: Orders. Upon relief, detach and report to Sector Juneau for assignment as Deputy Sector Commander.

Branthoover reads, “From Coast Guard Personnel Command to LCDR Joshua Branthoover. Subject: Orders. Detach and report to the Coast Guard Cutter Kukui, Sitka, Alaska for assignment as commanding officer.”

And with a salute and a handshake, the 49 crew members of the Kukui have a new captain for the next three years.

The senior officer present was Rear Admiral N. A. Moore, commander of the 17th Coast Guard District, which includes the entire coastline of Alaska. Admiral Moore praised the Kukui’s outgoing captain for his diligence during an unusually difficult command, which began in 2019 and included the bulk of the coronavirus pandemic. But his remarks also were aimed at the Kukui’s relatively youthful crew.

Rear Adm. N.A. Moore, commander of Coast Guard District 17 (Alaska), said that the Coast Guard was expanding its footprint in Alaska to address unsettled geopolitical circumstances. “I mean, a lot of people don’t realize in the lower 48 that Russia is our neighbors,” he said. “We can’t see them for our backyard, but they are right over there.” (KCAW/Woolsey)

In this excerpt, Moore explains that challenges come with the territory.

When you come to Alaska, everything we do here is hard. And I think that’s a good thing. I mean that in a good way. Do you want to be a young Coast Guard person, and you want to be good at what you do? Come here to Alaska, right? If you want to drive boats, try doing it here in the wintertime, or even the summertime. If you want to be a cutterman, try working aids in these currents and these tidal shifts, and crossing the Gulf of Alaska, and being up in the Bering Sea on a ship like this. If you want to be an aviator, fly here in Alaska. It’s really hard. There’s a reason why we only assign aircraft commanders to fly in Alaska, both seats in helicopters and fixed wing. Because this is not really a training ground. Like you need to be good at what you do when you get here. It’s the hardest place to fly in the Coast Guard. If you if you want to be a support person, if you want to support operations, this is the hardest place to support operations. You can’t go drive and buy parts across the state and around to some other towns. You can’t drive anywhere in most places in Alaska, right? If you want to try to get something shipped here, try ordering something overnight, while the unit is waiting for you to get it. So it’s hard to support operations here. From a young person’s standpoint, if you want to be good at what you do, and hone your skill, and master your craft, come try it in Alaska. And I bet you’ll fall in love and you’ll stay here. Maybe not as long as Ray (CDR Reichl). You probably don’t want to do that. Nine times is not the blueprint to success, career-wise (audience laughs). But you’ll probably come back. If you don’t love it, we’re going to give you orders and send you somewhere else anyway, so don’t worry about it.

Nevertheless, Admiral Moore said that most Coast Guard members who come to Alaska love it, and “we can’t get them to leave.” That might be especially true for Commander Reichl, who’s leaving the Kukui to serve as the Deputy Sector Commander in Juneau – his ninth tour in Alaska, and a new record for the service. And it may be just as true for his relief, Lt. Commander Branthoover, who almost two decades ago was one of these newly-minted junior officers standing at attention on the deck of another cutter tied to this same dock.

“Eighteen years ago I arrived in Sitka on June day, much like today, as I reported to my first unit to serve aboard Coast Guard Cutter Maple,” Branthoover said. “One of the most junior crew members aboard, my future ambitions for my Coast Guard career were formed as I built relationships, learn my craft, and grew to love to sea.”

The crew of the USCG Kukui at parade rest. New captain LCDR Joshua Branthoover said his first assignment as a junior officer was aboard the USCG Maple 18 years ago in Sitka. (KCAW/Woolsey)

Branthoover inherits a ship with a distinguished record. In the past three years, the Kukui patrolled 25-thousand nautical miles, serviced over 200 aids to navigation, repaired over 60 faulty aids, and participated in eight search and rescue missions.

One of those missions in particular remains fresh in the minds of Southeasterners, as recalled in a formal commendation for the Kukui’s captain.

As read by the Kukui’s executive officer…

Lastly, following multiple landslides and extensive flooding that devastated the community of Haines, Alaska, Kukui provided disaster assistance utilizing their sidescan sonar capabilities to conduct searches, served as a critical asset for evacuation efforts and established a safety zone to maintain a multiday response. 

Outgoing commander Reichl was awarded the  “Operational Distinguishing Device,” which was pinned on his chest by Admiral Moore.

Semper Paratus plays.

After the ceremony, the Kukui’s former and current officers, crew, and about 30 guests went ashore to the Eagle’s Nest for a reception.

USCG Kukui was commissioned in 1998, the third of the Coast Guard’s 225-foot “Juniper” class buoy tenders. (KCAW/Woolsey)