Vice Admiral Manson Brown of the U.S. Coast Guard
“When I saw him at the front door in full uniform, a black man, I saw a vision for the future. He convinced my mother to let me visit the Academy and I was hooked.”
Since May 2012, Vice Admiral Manson Brown has been the Coast Guard’s second deputy commandant for mission support.
Brown’s responsibilities include oversight of human capital, lifecycle engineering, acquisitions, telecommunications and information technology, training, and thirteen support bases around the nation. It’s a multifaceted role that’s “both challenging and rewarding,” he says.
“In these tough budget times, there is a lot of attention to human resource management, trying to determine the right systems to manage a dynamic workforce,” Brown says. “Obviously, there is a lot of pressure on engineering and IT support to keep things moving forward. In acquisitions, we’re trying to replace aging assets, buying new ships and new aircraft. Training is a passionate issue for our people.
“We’ve always had security in our mission portfolio but we spend more time on it now,” he notes. “The pie chart has changed.”
Brown and his executive leadership team collaborate with the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The Coast Guard is one of twenty-two agencies within DHS that work together toward solutions to their common challenges.
Before he took on his current duties, Brown was the commander for the Coast Guard Pacific Area. He was the operational commander for all Coast Guard missions on “half the planet,” he notes. He was also the commander of the Coast Guard Defense Force West, and provided Coast Guard mission support to U.S. Pacific Command.
Growing up in the inner city
Brown grew up in northwest Washington, DC. “My parents both worked. We were a middle-class family who lived in the inner city. My mother and father promoted strong family values in a very threatening, conflicted environment. My dad worked three jobs to send us to private school.
“Most of the guys I grew up with are no longer with us,” he observes. “One friend of mine went into the Air Force and I joined the Coast Guard. The military was our ticket to better opportunities.”
Brown attended the academically rigorous St. John’s College High School in DC. His approach to choosing a college was to pick up every brochure on the guidance counselor’s rack. “I got interest cards for whatever was there and mailed them all out. It was a blind draw.”
Hooked on the Coast Guard
Brown was personally recruited to the Coast Guard Academy (USCGA, New London, CT) by then Lieutenant London Steverson, the second African American USCGA graduate. “Of all the people courting me, he was the only one who came to the house. When I saw him at the front door in full uniform, a black man, I saw a vision for the future,” Brown states. “He convinced my mother to let me visit the campus and I was hooked.”
Brown entered the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1974. “My class started with 400 students and graduated 167,” Brown says. “Of twenty-two African Americans at the beginning, six graduated. A lot of that was academic challenge, but a lot was also cultural challenge. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were pioneers in a process to transform the Academy culture to become more supportive of diversity.”
He continues, “I had gone to a predominantly white high school so I had already been through the acculturation process. That was probably an advantage I had over my African American classmates at the Academy.”
His original interest was in marine science but he missed the cut. Instead, he got his second choice: civil engineering. Brown admits, “At that time, all I knew was that it was about building buildings, but it turned out to be pretty useful.
“I look at system problems like an engineer,” he says. “I found discipline in the engineering profession. Even today, my approach to problem solving uses the FADE process: focus, analyze, develop and execute.”
He graduated from the USCGA in 1978. Brown knew that he did not want to go back to DC. “I knew that to survive, I had to leave,” he says. “It was a mature thought at an immature age.”
Brown has since earned two masters degrees, in civil engineering in 1985 from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and in national resources strategy in 1999 from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF, now the Eisenhower School at National Defense University, Washington, DC).
On being a leader
“I always had a technical inclination. But when I got to the Coast Guard Academy, all the personality profiles said that I was geared toward the soft sciences. Even though I love being an engineer, my passion rests with people so maybe the sociologists were right,” he says with a laugh.
Brown mentors “the long blue line,” working hard to help people who are coming up the ranks. “I’m proactive with groups like the civilian advisory board, women’s groups, African Americans, Asians, and Hispanic groups. I’ve shared time with them and stated how important they are to me. From them I get the feedback that when I am visible and successful, they feel empowered.”
Exciting assignments mark a career
Brown has enjoyed several challenging, high-profile assignments during his thirty-five-year Coast Guard career. From 1999 to 2002 he was the military assistant to the secretary of transportation, when the Coast Guard was still part of the Department of Transportation. “I was in that job for 9/11. After that, I became acting deputy chief of staff for that department.”
In 2003, he was chief of officer personnel management at the Coast Guard Personnel Command when transportation secretary Norman Mineta called, explaining that ambassador to Iraq Paul Bremer needed “a transportation guy” in Baghdad in two weeks. Bremer was the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. “He was essentially the president of Iraq at that time,” Brown notes, “and I was his secretary of transportation.”
In Baghdad, Brown was the senior advisor for transportation to the Coalition Provisional Authority, overseeing restoration of transportation systems throughout Iraq. “I followed the FADE process every step of the way. We got Iraqi Airways flying again the last week I was there. We got the trains running and the ports open. I was there for three months, and three months in a war zone is like three years anywhere else. I was a ‘gap guy’ until they found someone else because I didn’t want to walk away from my Coast Guard career.”
Reflecting and learning
“I learned so much about America in a crisis and I respect what we tried to do. I have nothing but respect for the Iraqi people and what they went through,” he reflects.
Brown has been married for thirty-two years; he and his wife have three grown sons. He has learned to make his family part of his profession and his profession part of his family. “I wasn’t good at it back in the early innings,” he admits, “but as I’ve matured, I’ve gotten better.”
Vice Admiral Brown is the third African American to reach flag rank in the U.S. Coast Guard and the first to become a three-star. He has received many medals, awards and commendations.
The Coast Guard motto is semper paratus, Latin for “always ready.” Brown takes that to heart.
“There may be a downturn in the perceived value of our services but then something inevitably happens like the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Deepwater Horizon, Hurricane Katrina, or 9/11, and the demand for those services escalates again,” Brown observes. “I tell my people to watch CNN for the next big thing; you’ll know it when you see it. You can’t manage based only on what’s going on today. You have to have a long view.”
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