Learn About a Career with the U.S. Coast Guard

The Coast Guard can be a career or a valuable stepping stone

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Marlin patrols the waters south of Pensacola Bay
••• Stocktrek Images / Vetta / Getty Images

Those who are interested in law enforcement careers with the U.S. Military have quite a few options. In addition to the four primary war-fighting branches, one branch offers a unique merging of law enforcement and national defense: the United States Coast Guard.

Whatever your interest might be in criminology or criminal justice, the Coast Guard literally has it all. From immigration enforcement to drug interdiction and everything in between, members of the U.S. Coast Guard protect and patrol the shores of America, enforcing both federal and maritime law. They also serve as the preeminent marine search and rescue providers, and they maintain war-fighting capabilities in support of the U.S. Navy.

A Brief History of the U.S. Coast Guard

The Coast Guard traces its roots to 1790 when a system of cutters was created within the Department of the Treasury, making it one of the oldest law enforcement organizations in the U.S. The agency was tasked with enforcing tariffs and laws pertaining to trade.

The service was first called the Revenue Cutters, then "system of cutters," and, finally, the Revenue Cutter Service. It was granted the authority to board all U.S. ships within four miles of shore, as well as all foreign vessels within U.S. waters.

The Revenue Cutter Service merged with the U.S. Life-Saving Service in 1915, which included a system of safeguards to aid sailors in the event of a shipwreck. This new service was named the United States Coast Guard and it has taken a unique place among both federal law enforcement agencies and the armed forces.

The Coast Guard was an agent of the Treasury from its inception until it was transferred to the newly created Department of Homeland Security after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Guard has continued its dual role of enforcing the law and defending the nation since then, patrolling the shores and inland waterways of the U.S. and providing wartime support to the U.S. Navy overseas.

What the U.S. Coast Guard Does

Originally assigned the task of enforcing trade laws and tariffs, the Coast Guard's role has expanded over its more than two centuries of existence. The Guard was entrusted with 11 specific and unique missions when it was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security:

  • Security of coasts, ports, and waterways
  • Drug interdiction
  • Providing and maintaining navigational aid and assistance to vessels
  • Search and rescue functions
  • Enforcing laws related to the protection of the fishing industry
  • Maintaining readiness for national defense
  • Immigration enforcement
  • Environmental protection
  • Ice patrol and ice breaking
  • Other marine law enforcement operations

Although it's not a part of the Department of Defense, members of the Coast Guard serve both as law enforcement agents and members of the military. By federal law, the Coast Guard is a branch of the five armed forces, predating the U.S. Air Force and even the Navy by some reckonings.

Opportunities Available in the Coast Guard

You can get lots of experience serving in the U.S. Coast Guard if you're looking for a job in criminology or criminal justice. The Coast Guard is a great stand-alone career opportunity, or serving here can give you valuable training and experience that can prepare you for other law enforcement careers.

Shipmates—as members of the Coast Guard are called—play a vital role in border protection and marine patrol functions. As the agency responsible for protecting the nation's coastal and inland waterways, the guard also serves as an important law enforcement partner in counterterrorism efforts.

Most people who consider criminal justice careers do so because they want to help others and make a difference. The Coast Guard can offer opportunities to do exactly that while providing excellent on-the-job training and experience.

How to Join the Coast Guard

You can enlist with the Coast Guard right out high school, or you apply to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Academy graduates earn a bachelor's degree and an officer's commission, which translates to higher pay and greater responsibility.

Enlisted shipmates attend an eight-week basic training program that pushes the limits both physically and mentally. Although the pay might be low for the first year at just more than $15,000, health care is provided at no cost, as well as government housing where available.

Additional allowances are available for off-base housing and at-sea pay, and salary increases are earned for promotions and length of service

The reserve program can let you earn extra income while you gain valuable training and experience if the Coast Guard interests you but you're not ready to make a full-time commitment.

Serving Can Help You in Future Careers

All too often job seekers get discouraged because they lack the experience they need for the career they really want. Finding experience for a great job can be tough, to say the least.

The U.S. Coast Guard offers exactly the right experience, training, and discipline you'll need if you're interested in working in law enforcement. In the meantime, you might just find that working as a Coast Guard shipmate is the perfect criminology career for you.