PHILADELPHIA — Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Richard Sambenedetto is many things. Known by all as "Mr. Sam," he's forever a Coast Guard chief, a cutterman by trade and a chief warrant officer by choice, but above all he lives by his personal motto: "Shipmate for Life."
"Shipmate for Life," Sambenedetto explained, is his way of saying, "You need to help a fellow sailor out at sea — you only have each other."
Sambenedetto's presence does not go unnoticed. He is a tall and boisterous man decked out in nautical tattoos that embody the sailor's spirit. "Shipmate" is spelled out across the fingers of both hands, and even his feet are tattooed — a rooster on his right and a pig on his left, representing an old nautical belief that tattoos will keep a sailor afloat at sea.
Sambenedetto, the finance and supply division chief for the logistics department at Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay in Philadelphia, emphasizes the importance of mentoring others.
"Between leadership and mentorship, you use your past experience with current policy to help everyone out," he said. "No one's perfect."
That mentorship extends in every possible direction, from junior enlisted service 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," Diner said. "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 Sambenedetto personifies the ideal of a chief warrant officer — he is involved and always available.
"He doesn't sugarcoat anything," Diner said. "It's nice to have such a straight-shooter chief warrant officer as a member of the chiefs' mess."
The Coast Guard may be composed of individuals, but they do not complete the mission individually, Sambenedetto said.
"It's not just about you — it's about others," he said. "It's a team. You need active duty, reservists, auxiliarists and civilians. Across all facets of that, everybody helps each other out."
Embracing Teamwork to Accomplish Missions
Sambenedetto learned about teamwork as he served on multiple Coast Guard cutters for more than 10 years of sea time. His primary duty was as a cook, but among other duties he was also a firearms instructor, firefighting team leader, boarding officer and supply officer.
"Most colleges only take your pay grade into effect — they don't necessarily analyze your experience at sea to assign college credits," he said. "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 Sambenedetto 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.
At Sector Delaware Bay, Sambenedetto's office is reminiscent of a life at sea. Intricate nautical knot work adorns his workspace. More than a dozen ball caps represent where he's served. Coast Guard 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," Richter said. "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'
Sambenedetto continues to make himself available to his shipmates despite a dramatic turn of events in his personal health.
Diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease that causes muscular weakness and fatigue, he now uses a cane for extra stability, but even that is embellished in nautical knot work reflecting his cutterman pride. Some symptoms of myasthenia gravis include impaired vision, difficulty swallowing and slurred speech.
"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," he said. "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."
Sambenedetto added, "When junior members are coming up through the ranks during peacetime, you let them lead. But when you're doing an actual mission, [you] 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."
Medical Care, Prognosis
Sambenedetto'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 Public Health Service Lt. Cmdr. Jason B. Buenaventura, an osteopath assigned to Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, New Jersey.
"The weakness is worsened by activity and is better with rest," Buenaventura said. "It is autoimmune, meaning; the body produces antibodies that are attacking the body itself."
He 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," Buenaventura said. "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," Buenaventura continued. "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.'"
Sambenedetto 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, Sambenedetto 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 Guardsmen from junior enlisted to senior enlisted.
When talking about CCTI and its final events — the Rites of Passage and the Acceptance Dinner — Sambenedetto said, "This is my Super Bowl!"
As he prepares himself for the next chapter of his life, he said he'll always stay connected to the chiefs' mess.
"I'll handle it one task at a time," Sambenedetto said. "In a storm, it doesn't rain forever, but now I have to learn how to dance in the rain."