“I had been a cook in a restaurant, worked in shipyards, done manual labor, a little bit of construction and some other things, and I knew there was more out there… I joined the Military to get a better life.”
By age 16, after growing up with different family members, Jeff Payne took it upon himself to look for a better future. In high school, Jeff’s football coach suggested he consider the Coast Guard Academy. Thinking it was a long shot, Jeff went through the process of interviewing with a Coast Guard Reserve member. He did a panel interview, filled out paperwork and completed the physical exam required by all U.S. military academies. And then, much to his satisfaction, he was accepted.
Jeff won’t deny that four years at a military academy is not like the typical college experience.
“The difference is the amount of work… your days are longer; your days are harder… When you’re there though, you’re very tight with your classmates… especially at the Coast Guard; it’s a very small service academy so you know everyone in your class.”
After graduation, Jeff went directly to sea. This gets graduates out of the classroom and into an apprenticeship/internship role in order to gain true, hands-on experience. As an engineering major in the Academy, Jeff had moved from problems in math books to live practice on the cutters themselves. He was working directly with engines the size of a living room, and, at only age 22, was already responsible for overseeing several mechanics and other crewmembers. This meant Jeff had to both lead and learn on the job.
“The hardest thing to learn is how to be able to both lead and follow at the same time. Yes, technically, you are in charge of these guys. But these are technicians who have been doing it for a very long time. You’re also learning an awful lot from them.”
Later, after serving as a port engineer for a naval engineering support unit in Florida, Jeff was paid by the Coast Guard to obtain a master’s degree at the University of Michigan. While earning his degree, he and the other military engineers quickly distinguished themselves.
“I need to learn because I’m going to be using this. I’m not here because I just want a degree. I’m here because this is what I do for a living.”
Today, Jeff is an engineer officer responsible for 25 crewmen.
“I’m responsible for the entire ship… for all the systems: electronic, electrical, mechanical, hull, every single thing you can possibly think of on a ship.”
Such responsibility is not without excitement. Whether checking fishing boats for safety, saving illegal immigrants aboard dangerous vessels in the middle of the Caribbean or stopping speedboats carrying drugs or weapons from entering our waters — Jeff’s “typical” day at work is not so typical. Most importantly, his service in the Coast Guard, where he plans to stay for a very long time, has taught him the humility of real leadership.
“When you’re leading those guys… the biggest thing is not being overconfident but listening and paying attention and trying to learn…”
From a kid, on his own at age 16, to an officer with degrees from two prestigious institutions, Jeff has shown what hard work, modest leadership and basic discipline can do to make aspirations into reality.