This is my Coast Guard. This is my unit. This is my watch.

The month of April is designated Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and throughout the month Coast Guard Compass will highlight first-person accounts from men and women of the Coast Guard who are taking a stand against the crime of sexual assault. Our first account comes from Master Chief Petty Officer Devin R. Spencer, officer-in-charge of Station San Francisco, whose experience has taught him “It all starts at the top.”

A response boat arrives at Station San Francisco. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Barry Bena.

A response boat arrives at Station San Francisco. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Barry Bena.

Written by Master Chief Petty Officer Devin R. Spencer, officer-in-charge of Station San Francisco.

As a unit commander I often remind my crew, if our boats cannot leave the dock, not a whole lot matters in terms of upholding our obligations to those we serve. It is my job to prioritize each component required to accomplish our boat’s movement, and let me tell you, there are a ton of required components all competing for the title of “highest priority.” Fortunately, my decision on which element gets “head of the line privileges” is made easy by the notion of one simple fact: boats need people to operate them. More specifically, Coast Guard boats need Coast Guard men and women and, therefore, it is our Coast Guard men and women who are my priority.

The DOD Safe Helpline serves as a confidential crisis support service for servicemembers. You can call the telephone hotline at 877-995-5247, or visit their website at www.safehelpline.org by clicking the above image.

The DOD Safe Helpline serves as a confidential crisis support service for servicemembers. You can call the telephone hotline at 877-995-5247, or visit their website at www.safehelpline.org by clicking the above image.

In support of our people-are-priority mindset, there are many layers of programs in place. We conduct arrival and departure interviews, pay-grade meetings and have frequent visits from our command master chiefs and district chaplain. We have a morale committee, a unit safety board and we recognize high performers at our all-hands meetings. We greet each other in the morning with coffee and smiles, laugh with each other and sometimes, after a difficult case, we cry with each other. We do all of these things – and more – because we care about and respect each other.

You see, to a Coast Guardsman, core values are not merely a “company slogan;” they are our way of life. It is for this reason I am affronted to hear sexual assault still happens in our service and sexual predators still serve within our ranks. I ask myself how we can put such an emphasis on taking care of our people, yet still have these criminals who disregard any notion of respecting our most precious commodity. How dare someone wear our uniform to blend in with the majority of those who live by a higher standard? What can I do to ensure it never happens on my watch?

While I can’t guarantee what we are doing here at our station will forever prevent such a crime, I can say all of my highly regarded mentors taught me one common principle of leadership: “It all starts at the top.” In other words, what is important to the command is what is important to the crew. And where the one in charge should choose to focus his or her attention, the crew’s efforts will follow.

Crewmembers from Station San Francisco tie up a response boat. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Barry Bena.

Crewmembers from Station San Francisco tie up a response boat. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Barry Bena.

With sexual assaults still occurring and the detrimental impact an incident can have on a shipmate, the crew and mission readiness, I ensure prevention and how we respond are top priority. We use our all-hands meetings on a regular basis to raise awareness by discussing statistics and the fact many incidents have bystanders. We boldly read aloud recent articles related to sexual assaults in all services.

We have sent two members to the Sexual Assault Victim Advocate Course and intend on sending more upon availability. Additionally, every officer of the day qualification board incorporates a sexual assault scenario and I personally scrutinize the candidate’s body language and demeanor when he or she replies to the question. Any signs of immaturity regarding the subject are means for dismissal from the board.

All of the above are small measures. I personally believe these things will help but ultimately it is the message sent from the top, the top of our service as well as the top of each unit.

Not in my Coast Guard. Not at my unit. Not on my watch.

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