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At the Helm – Rear Admiral James E. Rendon

Rear Admiral James E. Rendon, Superintendent, United States Coast Guard Academy, New London

It might not surprise people to know that roughly 80% of the methamphetamine consumed in the United States is smuggled in from Mexico. What may be startling is that 95% of the chemical precursors used to make that terrible drug come from the Asia-Pacific region. That makes the Pacific Ocean a major theater in the international fight against drug smuggling, and the raging criminality that goes with it.

There are many U.S. agencies involved in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with drug cartels on high Pacific seas: all five of the U.S. armed forces, Homeland Security, NCIS, FBI, and the DEA. Chief among these is the United States Coast Guard.

Until recently, the director of that operation—the Joint Interagency Task Force West (JIATF West), based in Hawaii—was Rear Admiral James E. Rendon.

In June, Rendon took on another momentous assignment: teaching a new generation of Coast Guard cadets how to keep America’s territorial waters safe for years to come.

As the new Superintendent of the United States Coast Guard Academy (USCGA) in New London, Rendon is returning to a place that he knows well, and not just as a graduate—he was the Assistant Superintendent of the Academy from 2010 to 2012, before his JIATF West deployment. Long before that, it was a place that he dreamt about as many young men and women do, through the stories of an older brother who went before him.

Rendon is cordial, thoughtful, and speaks passionately about the complex mission of the Coast Guard and its academy. For the Rendons, duty and service run in the family.

“I heard about the adventures my brother was experiencing at the Coast Guard Academy,” Rendon says, “and so I decided to come here. It was the best thing that could’ve happened to me, because I loved being at sea, and I just love this place. I was able to play sports, and I got a great education. My career has been full of adventure, excitement, and life-long learning. It’s been a wonderful, wonderful experience.”

On the sea, Rendon gained that experience as a “cutterman,” performing active duty on Coast Guard ships. He also saw tours aboard several service vessels including the Durable, a 210-foot cutter (in Texas, his home state), the Patrol Boat Ocracoke (in Puerto Rico), and the Surface Effect Ship Petrel (in Florida).

It’s interesting to note that the first serious boating experience Rendon ever had was aboard the 295-foot barque USCGC Eagle, the only active commissioned sailing vessel in American military service. Based in New London, Eagle is the magnificent tall ship aboard which Coast Guard cadets and officer candidates train.

In his new role as head of one of the nation’s most prestigious military colleges, Rendon oversees the education and training of hundreds of cadets who will face situations from harrowing air-sea rescues to perilous drug interdictions, as well as humanitarian missions like the massive effort during and after Hurricane Katrina.

And that’s not the half of it.

As the polar ice melts—and as Russia reasserts itself (somewhat ominously) as a global military power—it falls to the Coast Guard to patrol and defend our territorial waters near Alaska. This includes the contested Bering Strait. Illustrating its hotbed status is the fact that the Russian side of the Bering Strait was designated a “closed military zone” by the Russian government in 2012, meaning that its activities are kept largely secret.

Moreover, our Coast Guard has just a single working icebreaker now, versus roughly 27 ocean-going icebreakers (some nuclear-powered) operated by Russia. Talk about a cold war. Ice cold, in fact. Rendon knows that his cadets will be critically, increasingly important as other nations seek to exploit the resources uncovered by retreating ice.

“As more ice melts, there are more navigable waters, which invites human activity,” Rendon says. “The Coast Guard realizes that we need to be able to operate up there and be able to respond to many situations, be it search-and-rescue or oil exploration, cruise ships operating in the area, or various other maritime activities. We very much realize that we need to be more capable.” President Obama’s recent visit to the region underscored the need for the Coast Guard—and its Academy—to play a larger role.

Rendon adds that the Academy’s mission has been reenergized by Admiral Paul Zukunft, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, and specific areas of focus he has identified.

“I want to continue to look for opportunities where our faculty and our cadets can come together and contribute to those four areas,” Rendon says. “They are the Arctic, the Cyber challenges that we face right now, what we call Energy Renaissance, and lastly, our activities within the Western Hemisphere.”

As it relates to the Academy specifically, Rendon has his own areas of focus. Among those is his desire to make the Coast Guard Academy more inclusive and diverse.

“It is very competitive to get an appointment here,” he says. “It’s intense. Those that we identify as having the potential to succeed here, and choose to accept an appointment, gain so much. One of the challenges of this place, of our service in general, is to be more diverse. We work very hard along those lines, and have had some success. But it’s something that must always be in the forefront. We want this Academy and our service to be diverse, so we can continue to rise to the challenges of an increasingly diverse nation.”

“It’s one thing to attract a diverse set of men and women to start their 200-week program. It’s another thing to graduate a diverse class,” he adds. “I can say with great satisfaction that this most recent graduating class of 2015 was the most diverse in Coast Guard Academy history.”

When not running the USCGA, Rendon and his wife, Fela, enjoy shoreline living. “We are very comfortable here,” Rendon says. “We probably won’t do it again until next summer because the water’s getting cold, but we’re big stand-up paddle boarding folks. We love this entire region, all the small-town shops and various restaurants. We’re golfers, too, and I do a lot of running. We’re also big baseball fans. We see the Connecticut Tigers quite a bit. We feel very much at home here.”

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