Preparing for the tough decisions: the Coast Guard Academy’s annual Ethics Forum

Written by Lt. Megan Mervar

Cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy attend presentations during the Academy's Ethics Forum March 20, 2015. The Forum includes several presentations and panels which focus on ethics in the military profession. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

Cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy attend presentations during the Academy’s Ethics Forum March 20, 2015. The Forum includes several presentations and panels which focus on ethics in the military profession. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

Each May, around 200 cadets raise their right hands and take the oath of office, concluding the declaration with, “…I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

It’s what those new officers commit to the American public, in return for supporting their education and the Coast Guard’s missions. But, they don’t learn how to faithfully discharge their duties overnight, especially when tough decisions are involved. There remain infinite lessons to be learned after they have lowered their hands.

There is no denying the difficult ethical situations with which cadets will be presented as young junior officers. To build upon their developing experience, they must learn from the experience of those senior to them; those who have learned to face the odds and carry on the missions they vowed to perform and the people they promised to protect.

For nearly three decades, the Coast Guard Academy has set aside one day each year for the Ethics Forum: a chance for young cadets to learn from and interact with junior officers, experts in military professionalism, and others seasoned in difficult decision-making. The forum is made possible through generous gifts from the classes of 1948 and 1957 to the Academy Alumni Association.

As the speakers at this year’s forum began, the cadets’ intent faces did not disguise the questions hovering in their minds: How do I lead people who’ve already been in the Coast Guard for years when I’ve just received my commission? How can I own up to a mistake, and why should I? How do I keep myself from making bad decisions?

During a junior officer panel, one young officer shared her approach to leading a division of enlisted members, just months after receiving her commission from the Academy. She expressed the sentiment many in the room undoubtedly felt: you want to be respected and you want to be liked, but you know that you have to stay true to the values that are important to you and that the Coast Guard upholds.

“That’s a tough role for JO’s—how do you learn to lead?” she proposed.

Cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy attend presentations during the Academy's Ethics Forum March 20, 2015. The Forum includes several presentations and panels which focus on ethics in the military profession. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

Cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy attend presentations during the Academy’s Ethics Forum March 20, 2015. The Forum includes several presentations and panels which focus on ethics in the military profession. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

Her advice? Lean on your division for advice and build trusting relationships with division members, but make sure you have clearly communicated your values. There may come a time when your values override their desires, but they are more likely to understand your position if you’ve built trusting relationships with them.

“You’re going to make mistakes, but it’s where you learn from them,” was the advice another junior officer shared, repeating the wise advice her commanding officer had given her while assigned to her first cutter.

A third officer agreed, encouraging the cadets in the audience to follow their gut instinct, citing an incident in which he failed to follow his own advice.

“It was right there that my character, my judgment, everything I had worked for, was called into question,” he recalled.

The junior officers’ advice would serve as a prelude to the insight author Michael Tougais would also share in one session.

Tougais tied together lessons he’d gathered from survivors and rescuers he’d interviewed over the years with a narrative of the HMS Bounty replica rescue during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

As the Bounty made preparations to depart New London, Connecticut, for Florida, Claudene Christian, a Bounty sailor, felt uneasy about sailing into a hurricane, as her e-mails to family later showed. But, the captain had offered for anyone on the crew not comfortable sailing to meet the ship in Florida, and the entire crew declined the offer. The Bounty ultimately sank off the North Carolina coast in the midst of Hurricane Sandy, and Claudene did not survive.

“Never ignore your intuition,” Tougais cautioned, explaining that intuition is a clue that comes from your subconscious. “We ignore our intuition at our peril.”

The Bounty had been through hurricanes before and as the captain prepared for the voyage, he felt his ship could go around Sandy, not realizing it was too wide to circumnavigate. As Tougais warned cadets, there were two very important lessons to learn from the captain’s mistakes.

First, “do not project past outcomes to a current situation,” he warned.

He encouraged the cadets to analyze even the most subtle elements of each situation, even if it is very similar to a past circumstance.

Second, “Sticking to a plan can lead to a disaster,” he said.

The plan was to sail to Florida; a hurricane was not a part of the plan. Tougais advised that it’s better to be adaptable, so you can respond to new information, instead of staying so focused on the original goal that you ignore the new information.

The perspective offered by Tougais, the junior officer panelists, and other panels and speakers throughout the day left the cadets pensive, with new context to apply to their own experiences. In turn, the forum offered the tools the future officers needed to grow themselves into professional and competent public servants.

Vice Adm. William Lee, Coast Guard Atlantic Area Commander, addresses the Corps of Cadets at the close of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy's Ethics Forum March 20, 2015. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

Vice Adm. William Lee, Coast Guard Atlantic Area Commander, addresses the Corps of Cadets at the close of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s Ethics Forum March 20, 2015. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

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14 Responses

  1. Joseph H. Wubbold III says:

    Further to my last, for a good exposition of all of the principals of leadership that one could ever want, read Sir Ernest Shackleton’s own account of his voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia. It is called “South”, and should be required reading for every person who aspires to command at sea. And two more are “The Cruel Sea”, by Nicholas Monserrat, and “The Captain” by Jan de Hartog. Not much leadership theory, not much classroom study, just good solid seagoing wisdom.
    Captain Joe

  2. Rob O. says:

    As a retired Master Chief, I strongly recommend that you begin to look at your Coast Guard History, specifically, The Chief’s Mess, as it relates to strong leadership, ethics and overall defending of the Coast Guard’s Core Values!!! I am quite shocked that there wasn’t one mention of asking the Chief!!! During my time in the Chief’s Mess, especially aboard ships, all Junior Officer’s were required to check in with the Chief’s Mess for guidance and questions to the realities and truths of shipboard life.

    In my humble opinion, you are going down the wrong path, with forums of civilians and other so called experts, and ignoring the foundation of the Coast Guard!!!

  3. LTJG Katie Braynard says:

    Master Chief,

    Thanks for commenting! The cadets are absolutely taught the value of the Chief’s Mess throughout their entire four years at the Coast Guard Academy. Each of the nine companies has a Company Chief embedded that serves the cadets similar to how a Chief’s Mess would on a cutter. While this post may not have mentioned it, the Coast Guard Academy assures that the mentoring relationships built between junior officers and the Chief’s Mess are discussed and encouraged from early on in training. Thank you again for the comment and feedback!

    Very Respectfully,
    Lt. j.g. Katie Braynard
    Coast Guard Public Affairs

  4. Dennis Miller says:

    Great blog Captain Joe!
    Dennis (DJ) Miller

  5. Jack Cadigan says:

    In the above article, there is one line that skirts close to getting advice from your CPOs. “Lean on your division for advise and build trusting relationships with division members, etc.” I had all rates right down to SA in my Division as a JO. I never once asked the more junior members of my Division for advice, but I built trusting relationships with them all through my decisions and professionalism. Every day I would meet with my Chiefs to keep a finger on the pulse, and quite often solicit advice on actions I should/shouldn’t take. My first CO called me into the cabin the day after I reported aboard, and advised me to bounce anything new and different I wanted to do off my Chiefs. Best advice ever.

    I disagree on making decisions based on intuition or gut feelings. Judgement is a well ordered, thought out, plan. It is NOT a gut reaction on instinct.

    Back in December 1964 I was a young LT (XO) aboard USCGC Rockaway racing to the rescue of the sinking Smith Voyager (freighter). Seas were 25+ feet, breaking over the lee gunwhale of the stricken ship as she lay with a 35 degree list. One lifeboat had been launched (four lost, crushed against side of the M/V Hoegh Fullmer) and the Captain, Mate, and two seamen remained. The ship was too far heeled over to launch the other lifeboat.The plan was to wait until the following day when the seas would be calmer to get them, but my CO and I talked about all the other possibilities if the situation worsened. The ONLY feasible alternative for rescue was by boat, which my instinct told me that method was virtually impossible. Discussing the option whether to use the motor lifeboat or the monomoy pulling boat was done, and we decided the odds of success were better with the pulling boat even though more sailors would be at risk. There were numerous trail lines and other lines in the near vicinity of the wreck, and all we’d need was one of them to wrap around the screw. Just before sunset they flew the signal “Am Abandoning” and 90 minutes later we were all safely back aboard Rockaway.

    Of course training the volunteer Emergency Boat Crew was tantamount to success, but it should be noted that no “gut feelings” or “intuition” was involved or we never would have attempted it. We had a plan, well thought out, using sound judgement, and basically stuck with it. The most difficult of decisions is when your life, and in this case the lives of 15 (counting the rescued) others is at stake.

    That is not to say, you should ALWAYS be ready to abandon a plan that is NOT working.

    In summary, I have no quarrel with the concept of a leadership forum. I do have consternation concerning the total lack of repeatedly citing the need to “lean” on your CPOs for advice. In my six major sea commands (USCG and USN) I built my reputation even at that high level by seeking advice principally from my XO, EO and CPOs. I question the value of telling a future leader to make decisions based on instinct rather than judgement. Even when snap judgement is required, in my opinion that is better than instinct.

    Also on Rockaway (October 1965) we were doing a routine Medevac (possible appendicitis) in mid-Atlantic, and delivered our doctor to the British tanker. Everything went smoothly to plan. We were awaiting the doc’s decision whether to evacuate the patient or not. We used an MLB and evidently the shaft packings fell out, and the boat was rapidly sinking. We managed to get under the Rockaway’s painter and ride under the falls, but could only get the forward fall hooked before the ship heeled and the bilge keel crashed through all three underwater compartments. Instinct said to jump over into the water then and there to escape. Judgement said to cast off forward falls and painter.

    After the ship rolled past with starboard screw directly overhead we stayed in the bow section until it, too went under and then tied ourselves together (judgement) rather than each trying to swim to the ship (instinct).

    I cannot think of a single instance in my 30+year career where if I acted on some gut feeling rather than use sound judgement it would not have ended well. In the instance of the HMS Bounty (replica) The Captain exercised extremely poor judgement to bring his vessel anywhere near harm’s way just to meet a schedule. Those that by “instinct” would not have sailed (but did) were actually using good judgement knowing they shouldn’t sail. The Captain obviously had little study of hurricanes or he would have known that odds are more in favor of an unpredictable track forecast than a predictable one. Sailing INTO the vicinity of a Hurricane or Typhoon or taking a plane off in the face of airport closures to rescue lives is one thing, doing so to meet an arbitrary schedule is worse than just foolhardy.

    Eagle was (and is) the best leadership classroom where decisions as a young cadet can be made using good judgement, and leading small groups of fellow cadets.

    In summary, the CPO Mess is where the young JO can best learn the Coast Guard’s core values and how to be a good leader, inspiring confidence and instilling those values down the line.

    Perhaps such seems “old school” in the “modern” Coast Guard, but I opine that these, along with the comments by Captain Wubbold and MCPO Rob “O” are quite as germane to the 21st century Coast Guard as they have been since 4 August 1790.

    Jack Cadigan
    CAPT USCG (Ret)

  6. Jack Cadigan says:

    Further to the emphasis on trust and respect. Trust is earned both up and down the chain of command. Respect is automatically given up the chain and can be lost for a number of reasons. One way (of many) to lose it is by lack of respect down the chain. Examples might include micromanaging; looking over their shoulder all the time; not acknowledging outstanding work; taking credit for something you didn’t do.

    To elaborate further on my “medivac” post. We were tied together in 38F water for slightly over 45 minutes (by the ship’s log). It took that long to get a life raft blown up on the Rockaway’s fantail as the seas periodically washed over the fantail throwing our shipmates on deck into the taffrail or lifelines. They launched the raft, and then maneuvered the ship so that we could get aboard the raft, then brought the raft alongside and we climbed a Jacob’s ladder back to warmth and safety.

    The Doctor was still stranded on the tanker, and had determined
    the sailor aboard did not have acute appendicitis requiring immediate medical
    assistance, and the ship would sail into St. John’s Newfoundland with the
    patient. So our only “loose end” was getting the Doctor back.

    The volunteer crew I had used in the morning was an ENC plus two
    big guys – (a new Ensign, ex-tackle on the USCGA football team, and my stroke-oarsman on the Smith Voyager rescue). I chose them specifically from our Emergeny Boat Crew team because if we were going to manhandle a Stokes litter into the boat while the chief and I maneuvered, we’d possibly need maximum muscle – having no idea of the weight and size of the patient. When we got back aboard the “Rock” we were all soaked to the skin, and freezing cold. Hot showers, a shot of “Old Methusalem” whiskey from Sick Bay, and dry clothes were welcome.

    Thus before making the return trip to retrieve the dock, I selected three different crewmen to go with me, and give the first crew a rest.

    Soon afterward, as I was resting in my stateroom, there was a knock. There in the passageway stood the three sailors of the morning crew. The ENC was first “Sir, permission to speak frankly.” (Granted). “Sir don’t you trust us?”

    WHAM!! All my efforts to foster trust and respect going down the tube!

    I responded, “Of course I trust you! I trust you all with my life!”

    “Then why is a different crew going with you now?” (It doesn’t take long for scuttlebutt to get around on a ship with only 130 or so aboard.)

    I explained – or tried to – “I thought you guys had been through enough and would welcome the afternoon off. With a sunken boat, a huge propeller passing overhead, and a long time before we got back aboard freezing our wet butts off . . .I thought I’d already asked enough of you.”

    “But OK, you want to go back and finish the job. You’re right. When they call away the boat, we’re the team.”

    Those may not be the exact words, but the event itself from beginning to end is as clear as it was when it happened 50 years ago.

    It taught me to improve on how I did things. The guys were right. I had just assumed they would prefer the warmth of their racks (except for watch-standers because the weather conditions precluded a normal workday) to a difficult launch and retrieval. I should have gone to them individually and asked if they wanted to go out again – they were all volunteers. I had well sufficient time to do this before seeking out any other members of our rescue crew.

    The ENC knew from when we’d drill that it was as if the two of us were joined at the hip – he amidships on the engine controls and me on the tiller. I needed to give no commands launching, maneuvering or retrieving the boat. Other (more junior) snipes of course I had to holler appropriate commands. Thus he was probably particularly shaken by what he perceived as this lack of trust.

    Trust and respect trump gut instinct and intuition to promote leadership every time. When a JO (or a CO/XO) go to their Chief(s) for advice they instantly build the trust and respect their Chief(s) have for them. I opine any Chief Petty Officer is not only professionally expert in particular fields of knowledge, but in
    most cases has many years of experience developing good personal leadership qualities. Further, these sailors are devoted to the Coast Guard and want their ship or unit to excel They value their ability to provide input. A JO must actively seek that input, and then that young officer will grow and develop into a true leader. So, lean on your Chiefs for good advice and counsel in making decisions, and thus nurture mutual trust and respect.

  7. Joseph H. Wubbold III says:

    Good morning from the Magical Isle of Vashon,
    Captain Jack has not given the full story, and although it may be because of innate modesty, I choose to believe that it is because only when you have been the sweep oar, or in the water, or so close as to smell death yourself in a full gale, all of which Captain Jack experienced, or in my case a Pacific typhoon, can you also have the full feel of being in that situation. One of my favorite stories about Coast Guard aviation and Coast Guard aviators has to do with recovering an aircraft when I was Captain in RELIANCE. My assigned machine was out on the last search of the day for survivors of a lost ship, and by the time she came home, we were over pitch and roll limitations. Between aircraft commander and LSO, there was complete trust, and I knew this because I was on the circuit. The a/c was also a personal friend, and if the recovery had gone T/U, I would have been responsible for the loss of an aircrew, friend, and machine, and probably some of the deck crew. But the whole recovery went perfectly, the a/c touched the deck with full down collective at the end of the upswing, and machine, deck, aircrew and deck crew all came down together on the downswing. The tiedown crews had her into both highs and lows as quickly as could be done, and the aircraft commander came up to the bridge. The only exchange between the two of us was a grip of the hands, not a word.
    So here we have all of the elements of a hazardous mission. Trust, training, plan, plan executed as planned, instant obedience without discussion based on that trust and training, and finally, acknowledgment of a job well done-for that is the significance of that handshake. All the same as Captain Jack when he was a JO as the sweep oar. I always went on to the 1MC and talked to the crew after something like that, and went to Quarters the next time XO had muster, to tell the crew “well done”.

    I have to say something here about pulling boats, but I have to lay ashore for awhile, so will put it up on a subsequent post

    If you have any doubt about calling me, call me.
    Captain Joe

  8. Jack Cadigan says:

    Trust, training, plan, plan executed as planned, instant obedience without discussion based on that trust and training, and finally, acknowledgment of a job well done-

    Captain Joe “nails it” below.

    Training includes a lot of words: “drill,” “drill,” and “drill some more.” Drill at day, drill at night. Drill right up to marginal conditions, and when the extreme may happen, you will be “Semper Paratus.” That is why not only the CG but all our US Forces are the best in the world. That is why when the chips are down, mutual trust within the “team” and a good, well-executed (due to continuous training) plan make such a winning combination.

  9. Joseph H. Wubbold III says:

    I still have one “pending”, so I take this chance to observe from the Captain’s Chair that I do not now, nor ever will, have Facebook, Twitter, or any of those other things. Hell, I do not even own a cellular telephone. And I live a full and happy life without any of them. So if you have tried to send me a message that way, as our French colleagues say, “t’ant pis”.

    Anyone who wants to send me a rocket, or any other kind of message, is welcome to contact me at . Same rules-whatever your opinion, I will respect it and the person who sent it. I expect the same courtesy in return. As I have been Captain Joe to thousands of Coast Guard men and women under my command, as well as four Commandants, and as I am Captain Joe to most of the people who live on the Magical Isle of Vashon, anyone who follows the rules of basic manners and courtesy is welcome to use that form of address.
    Captain Joe

  10. Joseph H. Wubbold III says:

    This has to be an open letter to Compass, which has apparently decided that the idea of dismantling some pieces of our Service to return to The Old Guard has not yet come to its time. So this is an appeal to the people, whomsoever they may be, and wherever they may be, to send me an e-mail at the address below, courteously, respectfully, and right between the running lights as to what you find objectionable. For I assure you that the time will come, because there will soon be some flag officers who are willing to put their stars on the Secretary’s desk, and say that “protected classes”, like bad shipmates who do not respect their brothers and sisters in arms, do not belong in My Coast Guard.

    I say this from the fullness of time and my life, where all who were true shipmates were respected and valued. I did not need any diversity training, any leadership training beyond what I got as part of my professional education, training and experience, and any training about how to be a shipmate, one who puts his mates and his ship before himself.

    I know that this post will not survive the scrutiny of whoever it is that does this stuff. But I do hope that someone will answer up. I will not disseminate that message to anyone else, you have my hand on it.

    It has to be the part about those protected classes, as I am always respectful, courteous and gracious.

    Captain Joe

  11. Jack Cadigan says:

    Although it appears the annual Forum on Ethics is now more focused on leadership and all that it entails, perhaps it should be titled a “Leadership Forum.” (see the summary of last year’s forum). Certainly a good leader is ethical in all manners and matters, but that is only one trait (of many others alluded to in this blog) of good leadership.Of course ethics should be addressed in some fashion, and ethics is fundamental to our basic integrity.

    An early paragraph addresses cadets finding themselves in difficult ethical situations, but no further addressing of that scenario is discussed.

  12. LTJG Katie Braynard says:


    I am not sure which posts you are referring to, but I can assure you any comments made that came through our system (that did not violate our comment policy) were approved. If there was a particular comment you do not see on this feed, please feel free to share your thoughts and I will ensure it gets posted.

    Very Respectfully,
    Lt. j.g. Katie Braynard
    Coast Guard Public Affairs

  13. LTJG Katie Braynard says:

    Master Chief,

    I just came across a few of them in the spam folder – but they are posted now. Thank you for commenting and your support.

    Very Respectfully,
    Lt. j.g. Katie Braynard
    Coast Guard Public Affairs

  14. Jack Cadigan says:

    Thank you Ms. Braynard-

    Jack Cadigan
    CAPT, USCG(Ret.)