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Diverse Coast Guard class sails forward in a special way

On Wednesday, May 20, 2020, something that was new, novel, strange, scary, heartwarming, heartbreaking, inspiring, sad, happy, and fundamentally American happened at the Coast Guard Academy. The Class of 2020 graduated — virtually.

It was simple, complex, and touching. 248 First Class Cadets received their diplomas and were sworn in as Ensigns in the United States Coast Guard beginning a journey that will take them from Antarctica to the Straits of Hormuz, from the South China Sea to the Arctic Circle, from Duluth, Minnesota to New Orleans, Louisiana.

They will be on the bridge of cutters bearing down on self-propelled semi-submersibles smuggling cocaine from South America and on the boarding teams that leap aboard those moving vessels.

They will crawl through the bilges of barges in Houston and climb the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

They will hustle into a cockpit and proceed to the “last known position” of a Mayday.

They will deploy rescue swimmers into seas that would cower any sane person.

They will watch the nation’s maritime “six” in cyberspace, ensuring the maritime transportation system that moves 95% of the goods to this country is protected.

Extraordinary, to be sure, but not always appreciated.

Star power

At the graduation, these future leaders were appreciated appropriately if not physically in person. Heartfelt video messages from America's weather forecaster Al Roker, from Kevin Costner, who portrayed a rescue swimmer in The Guardian, and from Gary Sinise, a tireless advocate and supporter of the military, celebrated what the Coast Guard does and the role these graduates are assuming.

You will see many of these graduates again. They will return as instructors, coaches, spouses, support staff, little league coaches, volunteers, and, eventually, as retirees who choose to make southeastern Connecticut their permanent home.

Some will leave and come back again at higher ranks and with more responsibility.

Some will elect to stay and become permanent teaching staff to remain with the institution and in the community they love.

I had my turn as the commander in Long Island Sound from 1993 to 1996. One of my last official acts as Commandant was to take time from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response and graduate the Class of 2010 whose 4-year journey mirrored mine. More recently you would find me (prior to COVID-19) wandering around the Academy and hanging out in the Loy Institute for Leadership as the James Tyler Leadership Chair. When in town I stay in Niantic and walk the same streets and beaches I did as a cadet over 50 years ago. Our personal histories and the history of the Academy are intertwined with the history of the region.

That is the reason we are building a national Coast Guard Museum here.

Watching the wonderfully scripted and expertly executed virtual graduation this week, I couldn’t help but think what a commentary the day was on where we have been and where we are headed as individuals, as a service academy, as military service, and as a nation.

As an individual and a leader, I have always considered myself a “work in progress.” Two things are critical in that journey: lifelong learning and emotional intelligence. As I noted in an address at the Academy last year, the Academy, the Coast Guard, and the nation remain works in progress as well. There was a reason the Framers sought a “more perfect union.” Despite the extraordinary genius of the Constitution, they knew it was an imperfect document. It categorized slaves as property and made the slave trade lawful for two decades after the Constitution was ratified. Our two century-plus experiment in democracy continues.

Diversity

Accordingly, the conversation about diversity and inclusion at the Academy has been and will continue to be a work in progress. This week’s graduation was an important “way point” on that journey. The 248 members of the Academy’s Class of 2020, the largest and most diverse in history, included 100 women and 81 under-represented minority graduates, both the highest in Academy history. It was the 40th Anniversary of the first women to graduate from the Academy in 1980, the most positive change in the Academy’s history. Women first entered the Academy in 1976, 10 years after the first African American graduated.

The graduation, which was televised and is still available on YouTube, consisted of a one-hour “pregame” of supportive videos, including Costner and Sinise. The formal graduation was held by tradition on the football field. The Commandant and Superintendent both spoke from their traditional positions on the dais with the Cutter Seneca moored in the background on the Thames River.

It was a bright and windy day, beautiful. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary provided video remarks that were blended into the program. It was a marvel of modern technology and reaffirmed the wise decision of Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz and Superintendent Rear Admiral Bill Kelly to safely and effectively mark this important milestone and still honor the “manners of our profession.” It is the type of thinking we will all have to institutionalize moving forward in this new era.

More importantly, in the nearly two hours that followed the ceremony, the program continued on YouTube with a virtual yearbook presentation, personal greetings from cadets, families, faculty and staff and the units that will receive the new ensigns. It was warm, inspiring, diverse, insightful, sometimes sad, but always uplifting. Those two hours transcended any statistics regarding the Class of 2020 and were emblematic of the love, warmth, and caring felt by the graduates for each other and their experience. They will soon be put to the test.

Message to the future

So, in my 50-plus years of association with the Academy I have witnessed the work in progress: sometime in leaps, sometime in glacial increments, sometime forced by events, but progress, nonetheless. It is always painful to face imperfections, especially in a society where digital citizenship is immature and itself a work in progress. Congressional oversight has been hard at times. It is the price of being a public institution in a democracy. It involves hard conversations based on mutual trust and respect. I am grateful for the reconstitution of the Academy Board of Visitors, which can serve as a venue for these important discussions.

We need to build on the efforts that resulted in the most diverse class ever, and we will. We need to create a recognizable pattern of life that affirms our values and commitment so that when we encounter problems they are also recognized as exceptions to the accepted norm rather than the next data point that demonstrates we don’t “get it.” The Academy and the Class of 2020 gets it. In a most difficult and challenging graduation they distinguished themselves and it was our collective honor to witness it.

I was reminded of the late Rep. Elijah Cummings’ words, “Our children are a message we send to a future we will never see.”

The Class of 2020 are the messages the Academy has sent to a Coast Guard we will never see, but I know it will be a better Coast Guard. Elijah, I wished you could have been here.

Admiral Thad Allen retired in 2010 as the 23rd Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard and now occupies the James Tyler Chair at the Loy Institute for Leadership at the Coast Guard Academy. These comments are his personal views.

 

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