Short on equipment? The senior enlisted member of the U.S. Coast Guard, in an exclusive interview with HS Today, advised all enlisted personnel to maintain readiness and to tell their superiors if they need anything to do their jobs more efficiently.
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Jason M. Vanderhaden said he has been ordered by USCG Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz to assess the service’s technology, training and “ever-changing” operational demands affecting nearly 90,000 personnel. Speaking to HSToday at the annual meeting of the Chief Petty Officers Association (CPOA), MCOPCG Vanderhaden discusses workforce challenges, advancing technology, the opioid crisis, the nexus between terrorism and the drug trade and how the U.S. Coast Guard is meeting these increasingly challenging missions.
HSToday: What are the greatest challenges facing the U.S. Coast Guard right now?
Vanderhaden: Our technology is increasing, the demand for Coast Guard services, our marine field safety is growing like crazy. There are some new laws and regulations we have to enforce and just meeting the demands of the nation, with the people that we have, is challenging. We are supporting the homeland and meeting some of the new demands on the Department of Homeland Security from the new administration.
So, we are always looking for efficiencies and more innovative ways to do business to assure we meet our many missions. We want to make sure we understand what the challenges are, and the opportunities to meet them. We are really relying on our workforce to help us come up with these ideas and solutions, to make sure that we can meet the demands of our nation.
HSToday: Are there any challenges that you are bringing to the new commandant’s attention, specifically regarding the enlisted members of the USCG?
Vanderhaden: We’ve got some blended retirement, we’ve got credentialing, we’ve got a lot of specialized workforce training that our folks get that makes them very attractive on the private sector. Retention in the Coast Guard is very good right now, but I want to be sure it stays that way. I’ve promised that I will be vigilant to work on readiness to make sure that our folks have the training they need to do the job. And with that, making sure that their families are taken care of.
So the biggest thing for me is establishing a strong communication network throughout the workforce so leadership can understand future and maybe get in front of those, or at least get after them earlier than later. It’s harder to correct a trend after it’s been going on for a while. It’s much easier if you catch them early. Coast Guard Chiefs are the key to that.
HSToday: Is that part of the reason you came out to see the Chief Petty Officers Association today?
Vanderhaden: It is. The Chief Petty Officers Association has the unique ability to tap into the experience of some of our retirees. Currently we have serving chiefs from all around the country that are seeing and experiencing different things from their sectors. We also have the Coast Guard Enlisted Association, which is our young and energetic group of leaders, and we’ve “set the table” for their future. So, in the CPOA we’ve got the past, the present, and the future right here in one spot and we can all get together and share our ideas and talk about some of the challenges that we are working through.
HSToday: To pivot a moment, has the opioid crisis impacted the Coast Guard?
Vanderhaden: Absolutely. The opioid crisis has impacted the entire country. The opioids and the transnational criminal organizations that transport and distribute these opioids are destabilizing the countries in which they operate. That destabilization causes or at a minimum contributes to our immigration crisis. The land border immigration crisis that we have, which we are trying to get a hold of now, is taking some of the resources that the nation could use for other things. We are having to try to tackle that because…well, immigration is a lot of people that can come across the border that can look like a lot of things. They are not all just trying to come here to make a better life, some could come to do us harm.
So, the opioid crisis is a factor that’s involved in transnational criminal organizations, which by nature will adapt their business models to do whatever they need to stay in business. If we can get after that opioid crisis, I think we can put a dent into the revenue stream in these criminal organizations.
HSToday: What is your role in the drug interdiction or at least, are there additional roles you’ve had to take on because of the opioid crisis?
Vanderhaden: I wouldn’t say additional roles. The traditional role of the Master Chief of the Coast Guard is to advise the Commandant on issues affecting the work force. And then advise the workforce on the Commandant’s mission and guiding principles. So, what we‘ve done, as an organization, we’ve trained and we have established strategies to try to get after the need for demand. What our mission is is to enforce U.S. laws. Illegally importing drugs of any sort into the United States is something that is a prime mission for us. We work very hard to try to eliminate that.
The same organizations that are bringing opioids across are also bringing in cocaine and marijuana and a lot of the maritime smuggling. These are not just organizations that are working in Mexico, they are organizations that are working globally. They are causing a lot of problems and it’s a big resource drain for the United States. My job is to make sure the workforce is trained and prepared and has the equipment they need to be able to do their job in the water, to attack some of these narcotic smuggling organizations.
HSToday: Do you see any a nexus between the drugs and opioids and terrorism?
Vanderhaden: These criminal organizations, currently the larger ones, they are aware of what could bring, or could elevate them into a spot where they don’t want to be. As it is now, the United States
is worried about several challenges in North Korea, we are worried about challenges in Iran, we are worried about challenges in the South China sea.
But if these criminal organizations do things that cause them to elevate themselves in the National threat framework, they’re sensitive to that. I think right now, the larger criminal organizations are not inclined to necessarily, knowingly move terrorists across the border. However, as you start to see splinter groups or smaller upstart transnational criminal organizations, those that need revenue and are looking to grow, they may do things counter to what is going on right now. They may venture into that area and we need to be vigilant to that.
HSToday: So are these missions that the Coast Guard undertakes, that the public can support with more understanding and education…
Vanderhaden: I think our prevention mission is not well known throughout the public… Although nothing bad happens, it doesn’t happen by accident. When nothing bad happens that means everything else went right. So, our prevention efforts, setting buoys, vessel inspections, board state control, you know, every large container vessels that come into the United States, has to, if it’s a foreign flag, gives us a 96 hours advance notice of arrival so we can inspect the manifest and look at the crew. We do a lot to make sure, to facilitate that $4.6 trillion of commerce that happens every year, the Coast Guard makes that happen.
I think that’s a growing mission for us, that’s going to require more support, more public support, more congressional support. If I could put bill boards up around, saying, hey thank your local Coast Guard marine safety professional, that’s what I would do. We get a lot of press when we interdict a ship with large amounts of cocaine. We get a good press release for that. When we fly and we have a particularly harrowing search and rescue case, we get some good press for that. When nothing bad happens, it’s kind of like, oh, OK. That’s what we expect. So I think more awareness of the USCG prevention and safety missions is what I’d choose for more attention.
HSToday: How is the new cyber command going?
Vanderhaden: It is growing, we are refining it and getting better organized. We have been working very closely with US Cyber and I’m very confident in our trajectory and growth for that organization. We’ve established our protection team, our cyber security team, we are meeting the requirements of the Department of Defense as best we can. I think we are as good, if not better in some areas than DOD themselves, in meeting these requirements. I’m very optimistic and I feel very good about where we’re going as an organization with CG cyber. We are a member of the intelligence community and we are on the dot mill domain, we’re not on their .gov domain. We have DoD requirements that we have to meet and we are working very hard to meet those requirements. Our new CG cyber leader came over from US cyber, he’s very familiar on where we need to go.
HSToday: Are you feeling good about the funding for the new cutters?
Vanderhaden: We’re very happy with the support we got from the President’s budget. If we can get what’s there, we should be in good shape.
HSToday: What is your advice to a new recruit?
Vanderhaden: First, lead yourself. Make sure you are where you need to be, you are asking the questions you need, you are taking care of yourself, you are asking for the training, you are putting in the time that it takes to get the training. You are taking care of yourself both physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, financially.
Our new recruits don’t get paid a lot of money so it’s important that they prepare financially. We do have the new blended retirement system… and what that can mean for you in terms of matching the opportunities that you haven’t had before in the military. Prepare yourself and think long term. A lot of times, our new recruits think that six months is a long time, so it’s a good planning horizon for them. I would ask them please think about a 10-year planning horizon. Think where you want to be 10 years from now and then plan for
HSToday: Do you have a message for the enlisted of the Coast Guard?
Vanderhaden: I do. So I need them to be on the lookout. Readiness is key. Maintaining a level of readiness for the future as technology grows, as our mission sets are more in demand. Our folks need to be vigilant to opportunities and challenges, and they need to communicate both at any opportunity that they see up through their chain of command. Communication is going to be key in a world exponentially changing and growing. At the top of the organization you have some very intelligent people, that have been in the Coast Guard a long time.
In terms of leading in a macro level, they understand that very well. Leading at the deck and leading the folks that are doing the mission, I need them to be able to communicate when they feel like they don’t have the tools, the training or the resources necessary to do their job. I need to know that sooner rather than later so we can look at opportunities to make corrections. I think communication is key and I don’t want them to miss an opportunity to share their thoughts.
We’re not in the old world anymore. When I came up in the Coast Guard, you kind of just did what you were told. You saluted smartly and carried out your orders. To meet the needs of today’s world, to stay on top of technology, to compete in a resource constrained environment, we have to be innovative and flexible, we need to be agile as a workforce. That agility is probably not coming from me, it’s coming from the mid-level management that listens and says, “Hey, maybe we don’t need as much of this anymore, maybe we need a little more of this.” Or folks who say, “Hey, we’ve got some folks who are getting some
specialized training but we are not capitalizing on that specialized training for the entirety of their career.”
Those are the types of opportunities that we need to inspire. Admiral Schultz has asked me to take a look at all the ratings and see potentially where we need to adjust, to meet the technological demands, the specialized training demands and the ever-changing operational environment that we work in.
HSToday: What message would you have for the officers?
Vanderhaden: Continue to look at strategy, continue to plan for the Coast Guard and what the Coast Guard needs to be doing five to 10 years from now. You have a very bright, very energetic enlisted workforce and they want to be ready, relevant and responsive to the needs of the nation. We need officers to develop that strategy and lead the coast guard into the direction we need to go, and the enlisted workforce will follow. And carry out the mission, whatever the nation needs.
I have a saying: The chiefs take care of the ship so the officers can fight the ship, and when we say the officers fight the ship, the officers understand the strategic goal of the ship, what the ship needs to do, go where it needs to go and the chiefs make sure when the officers hit the go button, everybody on the ship can do their job and can accomplish their mission. They have their training, their families are taken care of, they are focused, they are fit and ready to perform. I don’t need the officers to be concerned about that, I need the chiefs to be concerned about that. I need the officers to develop the strategy and make sure we are where we need to be, and we are doing what the nation needs us to do.
HSToday: Is there something you wish you had known when you started your career?
Vanderhaden: I joined the coast guard for the short term. I probably limited, early on in my career, potentially some of my options.
HSToday: I don’t think so!
Vanderhaden: Maybe not. Looking back, I wish I had a longer time rising, I think I probably could have taken a more proactive role and mentoring some junior folks. I think that being caught in this, your ability to grow, other people and accepting that leadership role at a fairly young level. I think sometimes the junior folks don’t look at themselves as the leader that they really are and so they are more focused on doing their job. That’s just me, I was focused more on doing my job and I could have done a better job of trying to grow those around me at a more junior level.
HSToday: So kind of looking for mentoring opportunities, no matter what level you are working.
Vanderhaden: Yes, and having confidence in yourself. Be comfortable enough to say I can share ideas with people.
HSToday: What do you think the greatest threat is facing the nation right now?
Vanderhaden: I think trying to continue providing the current services to the people of our nation within our budget, within our ability, within a sustainable budget, I think we’re going to have to look at the nation as a whole. Balancing the revenue we bring in, versus the expenditures at our current level of demand is taxing our current budget model. I think we need to potentially, as a nation look at our annualized budget system and take a look at how we resource the government agencies that are supposed to be taking care of our people, that are supposed to be providing for the domestic security and the national security, you know, everybody.
For every entity in the government, it is very hard when we are operating, every year, it under a continuing resolution. We also have a fairly substantial national debt, so I think trying to maintain our quality of life, with our current level of debt, it’s going to be a challenge in the future that we will be forced to tackle. I worry, when the inflection point will be, we will have to make a major change to the way the government provides services to the nation, for what we can afford.