Robert J. Bir­rane Sr.

Dec­o­rated Vietnam veteran rose to be­come a se­nior of­fi­cer in the Coast Guard Aux­il­iary

Baltimore Sun - - OBITUARIES - By Fred­er­ick N. Ras­mussen fred.ras­mussen@balt­sun.com

Robert J. Bir­rane Sr., a dec­o­rated Vietnam veteran who rose to be­come a se­nior Coast Guard Aux­il­iary of­fi­cer, died May 30 at his daugh­ter-in-law’s Parkville home from throat can­cer. 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-top­er­son 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. “He­was 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. Mr. Bir­rane won a Bronze Star for his ac­tions dur­ing a fire­fight that left him badly hurt.

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