By Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen
A NAUTICAL SOUL
Mr. Sam is many things. He’s forever a Coast Guard chief, a cutterman by trade and a chief warrant officer by choice, but above all he’s a shipmate for life.
Known by those who work with him as Mr. Sam, Chief Warrant Officer Richard Sambenedetto’s motto of “Shipmate For Life” is his way of saying, “You need to help a fellow sailor out at sea — you only have each other.”
Mr. Sam’s presence does not go unnoticed. He is a tall and boisterous man decked out in nautical tattoos that embody the sailor’s spirit. Even his feet are tattooed – a rooster on his right and a pig on his left, representing a belief that those tattoos will keep a sailor afloat at sea.
Stationed at Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay in Philadelphia, Mr. Sam places much emphasis on the importance of mentoring others.
“Between leadership and mentorship, you use your past experience with current policy to help everyone out,” said Mr. Sam. “No one’s perfect.”
That mentorship extends in every possible direction, from junior enlisted members to the wardroom and the chiefs’ mess – of which he is an active member. He’s worked closely with Master Chief Petty Officer Brian Diner, who became Sector Delaware Bay’s chief of the mess in August 2015.
“In the last couple of months, coming into the sector, I’ve really gotten to see Mr. Sam’s involvement in the chiefs’ mess,” said Diner. “He’s helped me get to know who’s who around here, and he brings 25 years of experience. He has a solid history here.”
Diner said Mr. Sam personifies what a chief is and what a chief is supposed to do – be involved and always be available.
“He doesn’t sugarcoat anything,” said Diner. “It’s nice to have such a straight shooter chief warrant officer as a member of the chiefs’ mess.”
The Coast Guard is composed of individuals, but they do not complete the mission individually, said Mr. Sam.
“It’s not just about you — it’s about others,” said Mr. Sam. “It’s a team. You need active duty, reservists, auxiliarists and civilians. Across all facets of that, everybody helps each other out.”
CUTTERMAN BY TRADE
Mr. Sam learned about teamwork early on, having served on multiple Coast Guard cutters for a combined 10 years of sea time. His primary duty was as a cook, but he was also a firearms instructor, firefighting team leader, boarding officer and supply officer, among other duties.
“Most colleges only take your pay grade into effect — they don’t necessarily analyze your experience at sea to assign college credits,” said Mr. Sam. “With over 10 years of sea time, I always say, ‘I got a master’s degree from the Atlantic Ocean University!’ You learn a lot out at sea.”
Imagine a small group of people being limited to merely hundreds of feet of walking space while floating at sea. They’re bound to form a fellowship and learn from each other. The numerous cutters on which Mr. Sam has served varied in size and crew complement, but the essence of a crew working together to complete the mission was consistent. He likely has enough sea stories to fill volumes of books.
At Sector Delaware Bay, Mr. Sam is the finance and supply division chief within the logistics department. His office is reminiscent of a life at sea. Intricate nautical knotwork adorns his workspace. More than a dozen ball caps represent where he’s served. Cmdr. Kurt Richter, chief of logistics at Sector Delaware Bay, said Mr. Sam’s motto of “Shipmate For Life” is a good fit.
“I don’t think I know anyone else who has ‘Shipmate’ tattooed on his knuckles,” said Richter. “He’s constantly looking out for his shipmates. On a daily basis, I see people coming to him for mentoring and counseling.”
A NEW NORMAL
Though Mr. Sam continues to make himself available to his shipmates, he faced a dramatic turn of events.
Mr. Sam was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease that causes muscular weakness and fatigue. Among its symptoms are impaired vision, difficulty swallowing and slurred speech. He uses a cane for extra stability, but even that is embellished in nautical knotwork reflecting his cutterman pride.
“My whole career I’ve been helping everybody, and now, ironically, I’ve got a medical condition and now my shipmates are helping me out,” said Mr. Sam. “That’s very humbling. When you put pride aside, to be a leader, you have to take care of others and lead from the front. When junior members are coming up through the ranks during peacetime, you let them lead. But when you’re doing an actual mission, do what you’re trained to do and focus on it. Now with my condition that’s a little harder to do. The simple things aren’t so simple. The normal is now a new normal. I just have to learn how to accept it and move on with it, and it’s through my shipmates I’m getting that done.”
Mr. Sam’s shipmates pitched in to help him in a multitude of ways, but he’s also getting help from a team of medical professionals, including Lt. Cmdr. Jason B. Buenaventura, D.O., a Public Health Service medical officer assigned to Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, New Jersey.
“The weakness is worsened by activity and is better with rest,” said Dr. Buenaventura. “It is autoimmune, meaning, the body produces antibodies that are attacking the body itself.”
Dr. Buenaventura said myasthenia gravis isn’t contagious or inherited, and the cause is not known. There isn’t a cure for the disease, however, many treatment options are available.
“Mr. Sam is actually the first person I’ve ever met in my nine years of practicing who has myasthenia gravis,” said Dr. Buenaventura. “This condition is not very common at all, but every time I interact with him, he seems to be in good spirits.
“I’m sure he’s done his research, and he understands what it means for him long term,” said Dr. Buenaventura. “He was dealt this and he seems to be such a very resilient individual that he’s not going to let it get to him. He’s going to bounce back. I truly believe that once we get the right treatments for him, he’s going to do fine — Shipmate For Life.”
Mr. Sam received approval to get a service dog, though there is a considerable amount of paperwork involved before he can actually bring the dog home. He said the dog will help tremendously with everyday tasks that have become more and more burdensome to him, and he’s doing everything in his power to move the process along.
Despite his medical condition and a looming medical retirement from the service, Mr. Sam remains involved in mentoring his shipmates. He continues to play a major role in the Chief’s Call To Indoctrination, a two-month process that transitions Coast Guard men and women from junior enlisted to senior enlisted. When talking about CCTI and its final events — the Rites of Passage and the Acceptance Dinner — Mr. Sam said, “This is my Super Bowl!”
As he prepares himself for the next chapter of his life outside the Coast Guard, Mr. Sam said he’d always stay connected to the chiefs’ mess.
“I’ll handle it one task at a time,” said Mr. Sam. “In a storm, it doesn’t rain forever, but now I have to learn how to dance in the rain.”