History – Crises and an evolving reserve

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United States Coast Guard Reserve The Coast Guard is known for its agility amid the chaos of catastrophe.  In many ways, the 8,000 citizen Coast Guardsmen of the reserve have to embody this quality even more than their full-time counterparts. The individuals of the reserve stand ever ready to leave their civilian routines to jump into the fray whenever the nation needs them – a schoolteacher or a businessperson one moment, a hero the next.

Their stock rose further in the last 10 years as their role in the Coast Guard grew with the demands placed on the service.  Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, and now the Gulf spill have been driving influences for the modernization and evolution of the Coast Guard Reserve into an absolutely essential part of the service’s response package.

“The reserve is a vital component of the service,” said Rear Adm. Sandy Stosz, Director of Reserve and Leadership.  “There appears to be an increased demand for reservists.”

The demanding events of the last decade have shaped the reserve into what it is today but the progression really began in the mid-nineties when it was radically restructured.

An aerial view of the still smoldering World Trade Center Complex September 26, 2001.  Coast Guard photo by PAC Brandon Brewer
An aerial view of the still smoldering World Trade Center Complex September 26, 2001. Coast Guard photo by PAC Brandon Brewer

“In the old days reservists deployed as a unit,” said Stosz.  “We went from this kind of strategic reserve to an operational reserve where reservists can be deployed as individual augmentees.”

This reset provided the flexibility the reserve would need to take on the huge challenges following the turn of the century beginning with Sept. 11.

During the peak of the mobilization between mid-September and mid-November of 2001, 3,704 reservists, nearly half of the reserve, was on active duty.

“It was doubtful that the U.S. Coast Guard had any reserve left with which to respond if another attack crippled another American port,” said Master Chief Petty Officer Peter Capelotti, Coast Guard historian and Penn State professor, in his book Rogue Wave.

While being stretched thin, reservists also faced hurried call-ups, inefficient draw-downs, and other administrative difficulties, said Capelotti.

Satelite imagery of Hurricane Katrina courtesy NOAA.
Satelite imagery of Hurricane Katrina courtesy NOAA.

Loy directed “adjustments” and “fine-tuning” to the process and the reserve soon returned to some normalcy.

Hurricane Katrina, however, showed the Coast Guard at its finest: agile, focused, and absolutely dedicated.  Reservists across the Gulf were activated and performed heroically with the rest of the service, saving tens of thousands of lives.

Where Sept. 11 left the Coast Guard with some uncertainty, Katrina seemed only to show the service’s strengths.  These somewhat contrasting periods framed the continuing evolution of the reserve into a major player in the Coast Guard’s ability to function during crisis.

There has been no greater test of this than the Gulf oil spill.

It is already the largest Title 14 reserve activation in the Coast Guard’s history.  For months, thousands of reservists have rotated on and off of active duty, from all across the country, to respond to the Gulf.  Their endurance through lengthy deployments frees the active components to maintain full mission readiness said Stosz.

A variety of vessels fight the fire on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.  Coast Guard photo
A variety of vessels fight the fire on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Coast Guard photo

“Deepwater Horizon is a tragedy but a unique opportunity,” said Stosz.  “It showcased our strengths and our weakness.”

She added that the reserve’s capabilities will only continue to improve because “the service is becoming a learning organization.”

This willingness to reevaluate and adapt is the exact reason that the reserve is an essential component of Coast Guard mission execution.

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