Weekly Feature

2017-04-12 / Front Page

Clarence Center resident ready to take the helm at Naval Park


Capt. Brian W. Roche Capt. Brian W. Roche In his 36 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, Capt. Brian W. Roche provided security detail for three State of the Union addresses, a presidential inauguration and multiple Republican National Conventions.

But this coming summer and beyond, Roche will face a gargantuan task of a different kind — replacing the late Col. Patrick J. Cunningham as executive director of the Buffalo Naval Park.

A native of Levittown, New York, Roche enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1979 and entered recruit training in New Jersey a year later. Initially the plan was to gain four years of experience in the Coast Guard — also a federal law enforcement agency — in preparation for a career as a New York State trooper.

“I was only planning on staying for four years. But I never got out,” Roche now recalls with a laugh. “It was just too good of an organization to leave.”

Roche quickly rose through the ranks to become the commander of Sector Maryland/ National Capital Region, which provided a host of trials Roche had to overcome in order to grow as a leader and a manager.

“There are always personal challenges. Many of those who come to these stations are right out of recruit training, so it’s the first time away from mom and dad and that support structure,” he said. “That’s part of what all five service branches offer. They help these youngsters — and I was one of them — to grow up.”

When Roche took command of Sector Buffalo in 2013, he and his wife moved to Clarence Center. Roche managed 1,200 employees, accomplishing missions across 540 miles of coastline, including 2,300 search and rescue efforts.

“What I learned very quickly about Buffalo is that when there’s nice weather, people are not home,” Roche said. “There’s a lot of boaters around here, and they’re going to take advantage of the five months that they can be out on the water.”

Sector Buffalo oversees a significant length of coastline, which stretches from Messina, New York, to Vermilion, Ohio. Roche was responsible for managing the heavily trafficked waters of the St. Lawrence Seaway and responded to the 2015 Good Friday spill in Cleveland, which saw roughly 10,000 gallons of lube oil leak into Lake Erie.

“Down there [in Maryland], most of what you were doing was related to security stuff. Up here, in the summer months, this area is the busiest in the country for search and rescue and law enforcement, from the Coast Guard’s standpoint,” Roche said. “No other sector in the country has the pace and the number of operations in such a small period of time because our window for nicer weather is smaller than most other places.”

Though Roche retired from active military service in July 2016, his career is about to take a new trajectory that he had never imagined prior to last month.

Col. Patrick J. Cunningham, the former executive director of the Buffalo Naval Park and its leader though difficult financial times, died on March 24. Roche was then named as his successor.

The Naval Park, which averages about 80,000 visitors annually, has expanded exponentially since its opening in 1979. With the acquisition of the guided missile cruiser USS Little Rock in 1977 and the destroyer USS The Sullivans in 1986, followed by the Gato-class submarine USS Croaker, the park has become a staple feature of Buffalo’s Canalside, as well as a conspicuous component of the city’s bucket list.

In 2008, with funding from the Empire State Development Corporation, the park expanded to an outside exhibit area and a new museum building and gift shop. The park’s collection of military artifacts now boasts the three naval vessels, an X-Ron 1 Rotorcycle helicopter, Army M41 tank, Marine M-84 armored personnel carrier, UH1 “Huey” helicopter, Air Force F-101F Voodoo fighter interceptor jet, PTF-17 fast patrol boat, Navy FJ-4B Fury jet, and a P-39 Airacobra.

“I’ve already seen how the employees are extremely dedicated to the park. They’re passionate about the place, which is fun. I almost feel like I’m going to a playground every day,” Roche said.

While running a museum has some obvious differences from that of a military base, Roche already sees some similarities, including his enthusiasm for interacting with visitors.

“It reminds me of people visiting the base, because they’re there to learn, and that’s why people go to museums, which is to get exposure to something that’s new and different,” he said.

Now, Roche is busy preparing to make history this fall as the Naval Park prepares to commission the new USS Little Rock, a littoral combat ship that will be staffed by roughly 70 sailors. The event will be held at Canalside next to the decommissioned ship of the same name, marking the first time a Navy ship bearing the name of its predecessor is commissioned while alongside its predecessor.

It will also signal the first time a Navy ship is commissioned in Buffalo.

Writing history is a tall order, particularly for a captain transitioning into a brand new role with a slew of new responsibilities and commitments. If the first few days at his new post are any indication, however, Roche believes that the Naval Park’s steadfast crew will offer nothing but smooth sailing.

“The crew is very committed to this place, and they enjoy themselves,” he said. “You can’t ask for a better situation where you get to go to work and you get to enjoy every minute of it.”

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