Moffat County graduate is captain of the seas

In 1996, Kris Johns, Moffat County High School junior, promised himself he would attend the Coast Guard Academy and become captain of a ship.

Today, Lt. Kris Johns of the United States Coast Guard is living his dream, as captain of the USCGC Halibut, an 87-foot long cutter stationed in Marina del Ray off the coast of San Francisco.

While at home in Craig on shore leave last week, Johns took some time to return to his alma mater and tell his sea story to encourage current students to follow their dreams.

"There are about 20 commands of patrol boats out there," Johns told Craig Conrad's advanced woods class. "They're highly competitive, but I competed for it. I was lucky enough to get it."

But Conrad disagreed with Johns.

"Luck had nothing to do with it," Conrad said. "When he was in school, I trusted him with the keys to my shop and with my equipment and with certain responsibilities. If he says he'll do something, he'll do it."

Johns' inspiring story begins when he was in the eleventh grade and decided he wanted something different than the typical college experience. He wanted to travel some and be challenged a lot.

The Coast Guard Academy caught his attention and he promised himself he would go there after graduating from high school.

Johns gained admission to the elite officer training school, and soon found himself living a life of strict discipline while freshmen at other colleges partied and slept in late.

While eating a meal at the academy, freshmen aren't allowed to look at their food. Proper walking posture means your back is braced up and you're looking straight ahead. And upper classmen can yell at you.

During that year, Johns called home several times and described his experience to his parents. They'd ask him if he wanted to come home, but he never really considered the idea.

"The only way to survive is because of the friendships you develop," Johns said, adding that he didn't think he could bare the pain of seeing the look of disappoint in the eyes of his friends and family if he returned to Craig as an academy dropout.

After his freshman year, things gradually grew easier. His sophomore year, he was allowed to go out on the weekends but he had to wear his uniform.

As a junior, he got his chance to yell at the incoming freshmen. And his senior year, he was allowed to go out on the weekends, as well as Wednesday night.

Upon graduation from the Coast Guard Academy, Johns was assigned to the USCGC Sherman, where he served first as communications officer, and then gunnery officer.

Johns was 22 years old. Some of the men he was in command of had been in the Coast Guard for almost as long as he'd been alive.

Johns, a big man who carries himself with quiet confidence, said he was "very humbled" by the experience.

"I know they know I'm responsible for their performance," Johns said. "They teach me how to be a good leader. A good crew will help you out. They'll develop you. And a good leader listens."

In June of 2003, Johns received orders to report to Marina del Ray to take command of the Halibut.

"This is the most difficult and demanding assignment in any Naval Service," the Change of Command program reads. "There is not an instant during their tour as Commanding Officer that they can escape the grasp of command responsibility. Their privileges, in view of their obligations are ludicrously small; nevertheless, this is the spur with which has given the Coast Guard its greatest leaders."

Currently, Johns commands 12 men aboard the Halibut. His ship, valued by the Coast Guard at more than $6 million, can travel at speeds surpassing 27 knots, and is armed with two .50 caliber Browning machine guns. The armory is stocked with Colt M16-A2 service rifles, Browning 870 shotguns, and Beretta 9MM pistols.

His ship's primary missions are homeland security, search and rescue, and maritime law enforcement, including running down drug smugglers and illegal aliens.

As repayment for his education, Johns is obligated to serve five years in the Coast Guard. Before his obligation is met, he'll have one more tour of duty, this time probably a command post on land, because it is rare someone is assigned three tours at sea.

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