This article, by SIS undergraduate student Christopher Evanson, first appeared in Foreign Policy.
I remember attending transfer orientation at American University in the fall of 2012. Grinning from ear to ear, I was overflowing with excitement just thinking about the prospect of graduating from college. As it was in my household growing up, the opportunity of higher education was but a faint possibility. Actually, it was never even discussed. College had eluded everyone in my immediate family, including my father, who never completed his sophomore year of high school. My pathway to the college quad required a detour through the U.S. Coast Guard, an institution in which I served ten years as an enlisted member.
The first person I encountered at transfer orientation was another recently separated military veteran. At first glance, he was the poster child of the American warrior ethos. He was handsome, fit, extremely intelligent, and a highly decorated Force Reconnaissance Marine. He too had enlisted. Over the next five semesters, I would meet many more like him. Soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen, all of them enlisted, and all embodied the very best America has to offer. There were a handful of Special Forces operators, infantry, and medical corpsman. There was even a trombone player from the U.S Army band. Yet, I never encountered another coast guardsman. For lack of a better pun, I was a fish out of water.
It seemed wherever I ventured, whatever class I attended, I was the anomaly; I was the token “Coastie.” There were times when I struggled to participate in war stories with fellow veterans, because I had never participated in a security checkpoint in Kabul, or sustained enemy fire in Mosul. In fact, I had not carried or fired a weapon outside of a domestic gun range. My job was to tell the Coast Guard story, as a public affairs specialist, one of the Coast Guard’s enlisted external communicators. For a service that remains to this day smaller than the New York City Police and Fire Departments, the ability to build bridges with the media and surrounding communities was vital for the Coast Guard’s mission execution. In retrospect, my chosen profession seemed fitting for the task of educating my newfound peers.
I remember a story that a commanding officer once shared about the time he visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston. As the story goes, a janitor greeted him upon his arrival and emphatically declared, “I put men on the moon.” It was a bold statement, but it reflects in my opinion the nature of enlisted service. The story always reminded me that the various roles we fill, regardless of scope and fanfare, contribute mightily to the defense of this nation. It helped reinforce for me that it was okay if a fellow veteran or the uninitiated responded with a blank stare when I introduced myself as a coast guardsman. I view all interactions as an opportunity to educate and tell the story of my fellow shipmates. Those stories included that of Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Bruckenthal, a damage controlman killed in action alongside two Navy sailors while conducting maritime intercept operations in the North Arabian Gulf. Or signalman first class Douglas Munro, who died heroically on Guadalcanal on Sept. 27, 1942, after he volunteered to evacuate a detachment of Marines who were facing annihilation. (He remains the Coast Guard’s sole Congressional Medal of Honor recipient.) Despite my initial skepticism, I have been welcomed among my peers with open arms. Such is the nature of service.
I am proud to be among the long line of enlisted Coast Guardsmen who have served this nation, and I consider it an honor to have the privilege of being a student-veteran. If the prior-enlisted men and women that I encounter every day on campus are a reflection of this country’s future, then the future is very, very bright.
Christopher P. Evanson served ten years in the Coast Guard as a public affairs specialist, leaving as a petty officer first class in 2012. He deployed to China, Guyana, and Haiti. He is now pursuing his bachelors at American University’s School of International Service, specializing in U.S. foreign policy with a minor in international business. He will graduate in the Spring of 2015. He holds the Coast Guard chair on Best Defense’s Council of Former Enlisted.
The original version of this article appeared in Foreign Policy, on March 5, 2015: https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/03/05/the-coastie-vet-truly-the-silent-service/