Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles where cuttermen talk about why they go to sea.
Name: Chief Petty Officer Roberto Llamas
Rank: Boatswain’s mate
Hometown: Colusa, CA
Personal: Married childhood sweetheart, Katie, in 2011; two sons, Josh, 7 and Marcus, 5
Joined Coast Guard: Oct. 7, 2002
Sea time to date: 8 years
Current assignment: Deck Department Chief and Command Senior Enlisted Leader (command chief), Coast Guard Cutter Dauntless, a 210-foot medium endurance cutter in Pensacola, Florida
Previously served aboard: Coast Guard Cutter Petrel, San Diego; Station Vallejo, California (search and rescue small boats); Bahrain with Middle East Training Team teaching Vessel, Board, Search, and Seizure; Coast Guard Cutter Sea Otter, San Diego; Tactical Law Enforcement Team (TACLET) on U.S.S. Gary, last Naval destroyer
As command chief aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Dauntless, Chief Petty Officer Roberto Llamas has juggled roles as trainer, mission planner, boarding officer, pursuit boat driver, and coxswain. Such versatility made him instrumental in multiple smuggling interdictions, drug seizures, and life-saving rescue missions, his command noted when nominating him for the 2022 Hopely Yeaton award for superior cutterman. “He’s the highest performing chief I’ve had the pleasure of serving with in my 31-year career,” said his commanding officer, Cmdr. Ryan Devlin. Llamas wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’ve been here 20 years,” he said, “and I still love it.”
Coast Guard Silver Ancient Mariner, Master Chief Petty Officer Michael Burch, said “similar to Chief Llamas, my favorite watch is 0400-0800. It is very peaceful; that part of the day is all yours. I would almost bet that every cutterman has numerous pictures of sunrises and sunsets on their phones while out to sea.”
MyCG caught up with Llamas while the Dauntless was in drydock for maintenance.
Why did you join the Coast Guard?
I graduated from high school in 2000 and went to college for a couple of years. I played football (defensive end) for Yuba College and then went to Fresno State and majored in criminology. One day, a friend took me with him to meet a recruiter, who told me the Coast Guard does law enforcement. That got my interest. I needed to start making money somehow, and this seemed a good way to do it.
Was the service what you expected?
When I joined, the recruiter said, “You know the Coast Guard has ships and goes out to sea.” He was very clear about that. It surprised me later to learn a lot of people didn’t want to go afloat. I understand it better now that I have kids. But at that time, I embraced it. I was 20, unmarried and ready for adventure.
Twenty years later, I’ve never looked back. Things move at a high tempo in the Coast Guard, which I like. I can’t sit around too long. Here you can go from doing search and rescue to doing counter drugs to interdicting migrants. It suits me.
How was your first deployment?
After I graduated boot camp, I was stationed in San Diego. My first time afloat was on the Coast Guard Cutter Petrel, an 87-foot patrol boat. I was thrilled, but it was a little rough getting my sea legs. I grew up in a small farm town two and a half hours east of San Francisco and had never been to the ocean. So, I didn’t know what to expect.
You got seasick?
Yes. That first away trip was a challenge. You'd be surprised how many sailors are sick and doing the mission. It’s amazing what your body can do. You power through it and your body adapts. There are a lot of challenges like that. You just have to rally around the group you have with you. You overcome. That's one of the reasons I love being out to sea, the camaraderie and relationships you build. The stories you’ll be telling for the rest of your life.
I adapted. Today, I don’t get seasick anymore.
When was the moment you knew the Coast Guard was where you were supposed to be?
I joined Coast Guard to do law enforcement. When I was at PACTACLET (Pacific Tactical Law Enforcement Team) in the Eastern Pacific to do counter drug operations, I fell in love with the mission. I loved spending time offshore, stopping the pangas. There are lot of ships out there running drugs, but as long as you get one you’ve saved some lives. That feels good.
Do you prefer big ships or small ships?
I like them both. A bigger ship (like the Dauntless) has more stuff on it, more moving parts. All 74 people have to pull their weight and do something. When we’re doing boardings or pursuit missions – if I'm not on the bridge driving the ship, then I’m driving the small boat. There’s nothing like standing the 4-to-8 watch (that’s 4 a.m. to 8 a.m.) on the bridge of a cutter. It’s very peaceful. With a small boat, you get to move fast, hit the waves.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve done while underway?
When you go out to sea and have helicopters flying over you, and you are part of a mission, it’s very cool. Sometimes I’m driving, or the boarding officer, or assistant boarding officer. I’ve done it all. You never know what’s going to happen when you’re popping into a boat in the middle of the night.
Sounds like that could be dangerous?
That’s why we say don’t get complacent. I’ve never run into someone who is armed or has threatened us. I have boarded boats before where they’re trying to scuttle the boat with the drugs on it. That can get a little scary. You’re all trying to find something to plug that hole and keep it afloat. Luckily, thankfully, we’ve been able to stop it.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to do in the Coast Guard?
There are always big challenges, but I’d say a lot of the migrant interdictions. These people are trying to come over and you’re stopping them. Everyone from 3-year-old kids to 70-year-old grandparents, that’s pretty hard to see, especially being a father of two. I was on a ship where we rescued a couple hundred Haitians off of sail freighters near the Florida Keys in August. It takes its toll on the members seeing that.
What’s been your most memorable moment or the best part of being at sea?
The bonds, the stories that pull you together when family isn’t around. How close you get just trying to do your jobs. I think it’s very cool to wake up and the ocean is your office. I’ve spent the night on fishing boats out in the middle of the Eastern Pacific. I've had dinners brought to me while on a fishing boat because we couldn’t leave. One of my favorite parts of the day at sea is watching the sun rise and the sun set. I’ve never seen the same one twice. Or when I’m on watch during the 4-8 shift. I stand there. I have my coffee. It’s so peaceful. I have great memories, great shipmates. I still talk to a shipmate I met at the beginning who’s also been in 20 years, too.
What advice do you have for new recruits going to sea?
I hear a lot of the younger members say it’s hard. But it’s sea duty – you're not going to be doing it for the rest of your life. You just have to make the best of your time. So, go out and do boardings and stand watch and talk to your shipmates and build those bonds. It’s definitely challenging but rewarding too. I could pout for three years of my deployment, or I can make the best of every day I have. It’s not forever. I can’t believe it’s already been three years for me (on the Coast Guard Cutter Dauntless).
What’s next for you?
I transfer this year in July. I’m headed to the Coast Guard Cutter Narwhal out of Corona del Mar in California. My family loves the area, so we’re excited.
I will say it was a lot easier going out when I was single. As you get older, and your kids get older, it’s harder. My boys ask where am I going, why am I going? But it’s something I love doing. I think my wife and kids know that. They see it, too. My wife understands. She’s said, I’m not going to take you from that. That’s one of the reasons I love her. My kids have their own little Coast Guard outfits they wear around the house. I just tell them, Papa’s got to go catch some bad guys.
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