Vietnam Vet who Rose to Senior Officer in Coast Guard Auxiliary Dies

Robert Birrane, left, at a Change of Watch meeting at Baltimore restaurant with Barry Cohan and Bruce Johnson, Feb. 17, 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard photo/Joe Conn)
Robert Birrane, left, at a Change of Watch meeting at Baltimore restaurant with Barry Cohan and Bruce Johnson, Feb. 17, 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard photo/Joe Conn)

Robert J. Birrane Jr., a decorated Vietnam veteran who rose to become a senior Coast Guard Auxiliary officer, died May 30 from throat cancer at his daughter-in-law's Parkville home. He was 73.

"He truly loved the Coast Guard Auxiliary and did so in a humble manner," said retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Stephen D. Whitehead of Virginia Beach, Va., who was director of auxiliary for the 5th Coast Guard District.

"He had the right personality for the job and had a good style of humor. [He] could laugh at himself," said Commander Whitehead. "He was not a pretentious individual. When some people put on the stripe they become a different person, but not Bob. He stayed down-to-earth."

Robert John Birrane Sr. was the son of Edward J. Birrane Sr., a grocery store owner, and Mary A. Kerins Birrane, a homemaker. He was born in Baltimore and raised in Hamilton.

He was a 1962 graduate of Calvert Hall College High School and joined the Army Reserves. In 1964, with the Vietnam War heating up, his reserve unit was activated. He had been trained in counterintelligence operations, and was sent to Vietnam serving as a special field agent in some of the fiercest combat areas.

He was sent on a series of classified missions, often behind enemy lines, that exposed him to Agent Orange in areas that had been sprayed with the toxic herbicide that the U.S. had begun to employ to defoliate forest areas that were providing cover for the Vietcong.

"In one especially heavy firefight, Bob rescued his unit and saved several lives," said Art Pine, a former Baltimore Sun and Los Angeles Times reporter, in his eulogy at Mr. Birrane's funeral. "Badly wounded himself, he was medevaced out of the combat zone and sent back home. He'd spent three years in the Army, then a year of that at the front."

Mr. Birrane was discharged in 1968.

"Bob emerged from his experience in Vietnam with a Bronze Star for heroism in combat -- the fourth-highest medal in the Army -- and new understanding of who he was and what he wanted to do in life. At the same time, his exposure to Agent Orange left him burdened with diabetes and unusually prone to cancer," said Mr. Pine, of Chevy Chase. "He also would be haunted by post-traumatic stress for the rest of his life."

After returning to Baltimore, Mr. Birrane worked in a succession of jobs, including commercial pilot; private investigator for a law firm, and regional director of operations for a banking service firm. He later became regional credit manager for Montgomery Ward, first at its Monroe Street headquarters, and later in Catonsville. He retired from there in 1987.

"Bob was always very optimistic, charming, capable and hard-working," said Ruby Perkins of Pasadena, who worked with him at Montgomery Ward and later was part of his staff team when he was the Coast Guard Auxiliary's 5th District commodore.

"He loved people and was the go-to-person when you needed something," Ms. Perkins said. "He mentored people and helped them along the way; it was never about him."

He was a former president of the North Harford Road Improvement Association. Active in Democratic Party politics for years, Mr. Birrane also held a variety of positions in city government and in the party. He ran for the House of Delegates twice, though he did not win a seat.

In 1987, he joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary, the volunteer civilian component of the Coast Guard. The auxiliary's mission is to promote boating safety, conduct boater-assistance patrols on waterways and in the air, and assist the Coast Guard in other ways.

"We've been offering safe-boating courses for years because we need to educate the boaters," Mr. Birrane said in a 1992 article in The Baltimore Sun. "We've had everyone from college professors to people who do manual labor."

He earned the necessary credential to operate a patrol boat and flew in air patrols. He eventually sought office in the auxiliary, which elects its own leaders.

"Bob gradually rose up the chain, from flotilla commander -- essentially president of a local unit -- to district captain for what was then Coast Guard Sector Baltimore," said Mr. Pine, also an auxiliary member. "In late 2010, he won a two-year term as district commodore, responsible for overseeing auxiliary units in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and the District of Columbia."

Mr. Pine later became what he described as Mr. Birrane's "de facto chief of staff."

"He adopted me and I adopted him," he said. "Bob was a good meld between the auxiliary and the Coast Guard and he was amenable and able to see difficulties and challenges and act on them. He was also open to new ideas and procedures that would not violate the rules in order to get things done."

"Bob was member-focused, and when the auxiliary had an event, he made sure members had a good time," Commander Whitehead said. "Volunteers don't get paid anything, so Bob made sure they were enjoying what they were doing. As a leader, he motivated the 3,200 5th District members, who increased their volunteer hours."

"He was accessible and wrote a monthly column that addressed challenges and problems and ended them in a positive manner. Because they were clear statements of problems, morale went up much higher," Mr. Pine said. "He was a great storyteller and a very engaging guy, a guy who had a lot of patience when it came to listening to people. He'd always say, 'How do we get the job done?' "

Mr. Pine said his friend had a slogan -- "Attitude is Everything" -- posted at the bottom of his correspondence and monogrammed on his shirt pockets. In his eulogy, he described Mr. Birrane as an "enthusiastic mentor to anyone who asked.... He was always open. He explained everything he did, clearly and frankly."

"He always exuded a smile no matter what his personal battles were, and his attitude carried on to others," Commander Whitehead said.

Mr. Birrane remained active in the Coast Guard Auxiliary until the end of his life.

A Mass of Christian burial for Mr. Birrane was offered June 5 at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Fullerton.

He is survived by his wife of 45 years, the former Alma Anna Gegorek; and a sister, Patricia Falthman of Baltimore. His son, Robert J. Birrane Jr., died in 2016.

This article is written by Frederick N. Rasmussen from The Baltimore Sun and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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