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

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

There are a lot of options available for people interested in law enforcement careers with the U.S. Military. Besides the four primary war-fighting branches, one branch offers a unique merging of law enforcement and national defense: careers with the United States Coast Guard.

Whatever your interests 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 the United States, enforcing federal laws and maritime law.

They also serve as the preeminent marine search and rescue providers, as well as maintain war-fighting capabilities in support of the United States Navy.

A Brief History of the U.S. Coast Guard

The coast guard traces its roots to 1790 with the creation of a system of cutters within the Department of the Treasury, making it one of the oldest law enforcement organizations in the United States. The agency was tasked with enforcing tariffs and laws pertaining to trade.

Soon after its creation the service - which came to first be called the Revenue Cutters, then "system of cutters" and eventually the Revenue Cutter Service - was granted the authority to board all U.S. ships within 4 miles of shore and all foreign vessels within U.S. waters.

In 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service merged with the U.S. Life-Saving Service, which included a system of safeguards to aid sailors in the event of a shipwreck.

The new service was named the United States Coast Guard and has taken a unique place among both federal law enforcement agencies and the armed forces.

From its inception, the Coast Guard was an agent of the Treasury, until it was transferred to the newly created Department of Homeland Security after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Since then, the guard has continued its dual role of enforcing the law and defending the nation, 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 given the task of enforcing trade laws and tariffs, the Coast Guard's role has expanded over its more than two centuries of existence. When it was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security, the guard was entrusted with 11 specific and unique missions:

  • 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

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

The Opportunities Available in the U.S. Coast Guard

By serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, you can get lots of experience and opportunities if you are looking for a job in criminology or criminal justice.

As a law enforcement entity, the Coast Guard is a great stand alone career opportunity or Coast Guard service 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, drug interdiction, 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 U.S. Coast Guard

If you're interested in joining the Coast Guard, you can enlist right out high school or apply to attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Academy graduates earn a bachelor's degree and an officer's commission, meaning higher pay and greater responsibility.

Enlisted shipmates attend an 8-week basic training program that pushes the limits, both physically and mentally. While the pay may be low at around $15,000 for the first year, 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

If the Coast Guard interests you but you're not ready to make a full-time commitment, the reserve program can let you earn extra income while you get valuable training and experience you'll need to find another criminology career, all the while allowing you to pursue other interests and career opportunities.

Serving in the Coast Guard 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.

For people interested in working in law enforcement, though, the U.S. Coast Guard offers exactly the right experience, training, and discipline you need to find the job you want. In the meantime, you may just find that working as a Coast Guard shipmate is the perfect criminology career for you.