On August 4, 1790, the U.S. Congress authorized then-Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton to create a maritime service to enforce customs laws. President George Washington signed this bill, creating the United States Coast Guard (USCG).
Now, 225 years later, the USCG mission is far greater than enforcing trade laws and preventing smuggling, and it is the only military organization within the Department of Homeland Security. On that point, many of the people who stood up DHS hailed from the Coast Guard. In 2011, I spoke with one of these “plank holders,” asking why the USCG was so integral to the formation of DHS. A member of the Coast Guard before his civilian government service, Randy Beardsworth was part of the transition team that created DHS, and he later became the Acting Under Secretary for the Border and Transportation Security Directorate. He told me:
“At the beginning, everyone came from the four corners. It was a mishmash of people coming in from different fields. You had the U.S. Coast Guard influx. You had other military influx. You had some from the intel community. And a heavy dose of political people.
“There was no homeland security professionalism. The closest you got to it were people like me who had expertise in more than one area. We understood customs, Coast Guard, the DoD interface. There were few of us who had that broad background.
“In the Border and Transportation Security Directorate, I was the operational guy, and I drew largely on people who I knew and brought over from the Coast Guard. And that directorate was only a part of DHS. In terms of the expertise in managing all the departments, the people who were managing those programs all had a very strong operational background and generally had the same language in terms of missions and operations.”
The Coast Guard was particularly effective in helping to stand up DHS because its active and retired service members brought to bear a keen understanding of guiding a multi-mission organization, and they could communicate across different operational areas with a shared language and background. Those traits are uncommon in most government agencies, but they are integral in the USCG.
The Coast Guard does a lot for this country and rarely receives the acknowledgement it should. For many Americans, the USCG efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was the first real exposure to the talents, capacities and operations of the Coast Guard. There were rescues occurring from the air and water and real operational leadership that made all the difference. This is something the USCG does daily but without the fanfare or exposure that the other military services attract. They deserve better than they get in public praise and resources, as they are often left with pennies to do a job that requires real dollars.
Toiling without due appreciation, achieving success with a meager budget, saving lives and stopping threats, and making major contributions to America’s ever-evolving security environment (such as in the creation of DHS), the USCG has been and remains one of the Nation’s most critical assets, now two-and-quarter centuries on the job. Semper Paratus!