Story & Photography by Tina Irgang Leaderman
When Capt. Lonnie Harrison hands over command of the Coast Guard’s Maryland-National Capital Region on April 27, there will be a sense of déjà vu.
Harrison’s successor is Capt. Joseph Loring — who also took over command of the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit in Savannah, Ga., when Harrison left that job in 2011.
“He’s following me around,” Harrison quipped.
Since taking over as Sector Commander in 2015, Harrison has clocked untold hours traveling around Maryland and the Washington, D.C., area, meeting with important partners and building relationships.
“Just in the [National Capital Region], we have more than 100 partners,” he said. “I have to maintain those healthy relationships not only there, but in all of Maryland. … You don’t want to have something bad happen, and the first time you deal with somebody is during a bad incident. So, the familiarity and the trust and building those relationships is important.”
Harrison’s typical workday starts with an operations brief, where he receives updates on what is going on across the sector’s 64,000 square miles. From there, things become a lot less predictable. “Somebody could have people that are hurt or boats that are down, or having other issues that are a hindrance to operations,” he said. “Depending on what the issue is, it will dictate how we move forward.”
In a sense, Harrison’s talent for overseeing complex marine operations is in his blood. His father was a career naval officer, and Harrison knew he wanted to follow the example of military service, while also working toward a college degree.
Harrison recalled that a high school friend’s father, who served in the Coast Guard, invited him along for a one-day trip on a Coast Guard cutter — “and the rest was history.”
At the same time, the humanitarian aspects of Coast Guard service, such as performing rescue missions, appealed to Harrison. His first assignment after graduating from the Coast Guard Academy allowed him to experience those missions firsthand.
Harrison was assigned to a 210-foot cutter in Cape May, NJ, during the early 1990s, when political unrest gripped the Caribbean island of Haiti and caused a major refugee crisis.
“We went down to the Caribbean just looking for Haitians in trouble, and there were plenty,” Harrison said. “We literally saved thousands and thousands of Haitian lives, and that was a pretty remarkable thing to be a part of. It was also harrowing at the same time to see people who tore down their houses to make makeshift boats just to try to get a better life and risk everything they had.”
A decade later, 9/11 and its aftermath marked another milestone in Harrison’s career. He was assigned to Coast Guard headquarters in Washington at the time. “There was this whole new security mission that we had to take on in reference to the maritime industry. We oversee a lot of the maritime industry, and we represent U.S. shipping. So the big shift was trying to insert security into this whole genre of industry that … was not in the mindset,” he said. Harrison spent the next four years of his career working on domestic and international security regulations that are still in use today.
A few years later, in 2008, Harrison took over the command in Savannah, followed by four years in Virginia Beach, Va. His next assignment was the Maryland-National Capital Region sector command, based at the Port of Baltimore’s Coast Guard Yard.
Working at the Port of Baltimore “has been great,” he said. “I work with a myriad of people, from commercial industry … to federal, state, local and private agencies. Across the board, everybody’s been wonderful.”
During his tenure here, Harrison served as Federal Maritime Security Coordinator at the most recent inauguration. Securing that event involved a massive coordination effort with the Secret Service and numerous air- and land-based partners, such as the Washington Metropolitan Police Department and the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversaw radiological and nuclear detection. “There’s literally six months of solid, hard planning and work that leads up to that,” Harrison said.
For his next step, Harrison has already lined up a private-sector job in Savannah. As for the Maryland-National Capital Region command, he’s confident that he’s leaving things in good hands. Capt. Loring “is a great, hard worker. He’s got a great demeanor — a very calm, collected individual and very smart. A lot of those qualities are going to serve him well in the job.”
Harrison’s advice for his successor? “Take it one day at a time. This job is a marathon that you run at a 50-yard-sprint pace, so you just have to sometimes sit back and take a deep breath.”