When Adm. Karl Schultz assumed the duties as the 26th Commandant of the Coast Guard, one of his early action items specifically mandated establishing a new command in Puerto Rico to perform all mission support functions there. As Atlantic Area Commander, he was keenly aware of the unique challenges to conducting operations and mission support functions in an overseas location that is effectively the United States’ southernmost border.
This early action item came to fruition in April 2019 with the establishment of USCG Base Puerto Rico in San Juan, followed closely by the establishment of Base Detachment Borinquen at the Coast Guard Air Station in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.
In Department of Defense terms, Base Puerto Rico is the Garrison Commander for Coast Guard commands in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The base handles various support functions including personnel administration, financial management, logistics and supply, engineering support for boats and cutters, and facilities maintenance management.
Prior to the stand up of Base Puerto Rico, there were only two major commands in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands: USCG Sector San Juan and USCG Air Station Borinquen. Both commands had their own mission support personnel, something common to other Coast Guard Sectors and Air Stations around the country. “What made the Puerto Rico commands unique was over 300 units of military housing, a large full-time civilian and MWR staff, and numerous family amenities such as community centers, pools, playgrounds, clinics and other facilities to support over 600 active duty Coast Guard men and women and their families,” said Capt. Greg Magee, deputy commander of Sector San Juan.
The operational challenges that Sector San Juan and Air Station Borinquen face are considerable. Across a 1.3 million square mile area of responsibility, in addition to a highly active search and rescue mission, they counter a significant flow of drugs and migrants from throughout the Caribbean targeting Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. They regulate a vibrant commercial shipping industry, including the major cruise ship destinations of San Juan and St. Thomas. They also faced several high profile operational challenges, such as fire onboard a ferry carrying over 500 people, and the response and recovery efforts following hurricanes Irma and Maria. “The initiative to establish a mission support command was seen as a great opportunity not only to improve mission support service delivery, but to allow the sector and the air station to focus on their operational missions,” said Capt. Magee.
Planning for the base stand up allowed all parties to examine organizational constructs and search for new opportunities. One significant decision was to move nearly all the mission support personnel originally part of the sector and air station into the base. “An early proposal had the sector keep a contingent of yeomen and storekeepers to directly support sector personnel. The problem with this is that we would have to create new supervisory billets for the base. By consolidating those ratings, we could focus any new billets into technicians that directly support maintenance and upkeep,” added Capt. Magee.
Base San Juan and its detachment in Borinquen absorbed more than 170 mission support personnel from the sector and air station. Additionally, 19 new billets were added; among them was the new base commanding officer, Cmdr. Javier Delgado.
Delgado reported from Havana, Cuba, where he had been the Coast Guard liaison officer, and had previously served in a variety of mission support jobs throughout his career. Born in Puerto Rico and a fluent Spanish speaker, he was a natural fit for the new command.
“It was a true honor to be selected as Base San Juan’s first commanding officer,” said Delgado.
Having previously served at Sector North Carolina as their logistics officer, Delgado immediately recognized the advantage of a base in Puerto Rico. “The sector and the air station report to their operational commander, Coast Guard District 7. This meant that their mission support issues went through another operational command before going to the mission support enterprise. Now with the base, we streamline these issues, leading to faster service and better support to the operational commanders.”
A challenge that faced this new construct was how to respond to emergencies such as a devastating hurricane or mass rescue operation. The base/sector team conducted multiple exercises, and united to respond to actual emergencies such as a recent maritime protest in Puerto Rico and three hurricanes through 2019.
“During these exercises and real world events, Base San Juan personnel filled all the functions of the logistics and finance sections within the Incident Command System,” said Delgado. “The integration of the base into the incident command was seamless and highlighted the teamwork between the two commands present from day one.”
Shortly after the establishment of the base, the Coast Guard implemented sweeping changes to its procurement and financial management system. “Having all finance and logistics personnel under one command gave us the greatest flexibility to work through any growing pains during this process,” commented Delgado.
In addition to day-to-day operations, the base will work with various Coast Guard commands in a major reconstruction effort to replace or refurbish buildings in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands damaged during hurricanes Irma and Maria. This undertaking will cost over $200 million and take up to five years. Delgado is ready for the challenge. “We’re focused on the movement of office space, work facilities, and personnel to maintain operations while we make this major investment in our future and our people,” said Delgado.
This article originally appears in the 2020 edition of Coast Guard OUTLOOK, which can be opened using the viewer found below.
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