Our tale of unexpected diplomacy begins in Apex, N.C., a charming small town outside of Raleigh. Seaman Katlin Kilroy grew up there, and started out in hospitality and customer service before realizing she could help even more people by joining the Coast Guard. She arrived at Cape May, New Jersey, and put her feet on the painted yellow triangle at James Hall to begin her journey the day before Halloween, 2018.
After graduation, Kilroy headed to Base Portsmouth, and the team there quickly noticed her infectiously positive attitude, aptitude for public engagement, and natural photography abilities. She supplemented the public affairs team at several events and put her name on the public affairs specialist "A" school list.
Working alongside partners in the Arctic
The Coast Guard Cutters Tahoma (WMEC 908) and Campbell (WMEC 909) were scheduled to deploy to the Arctic in August 2020, to execute the area commander's strategic intent and further U.S. national objectives.
Tahoma was participating in Operation Nanook, the Canadian Armed Forces' signature northern operation. The effort focused on security exercises with foreign partners off Baffin Island. The Coast Guard was joined by the U.S. Navy 2nd Fleet, Canadian royal navy and coast guard, the Danish navy, French navy, Canadian royal air force, and multiple Canadian federal, state, local, and tribal agencies.
The Campbell’s crew engaged in support of Argus, the Kingdom of Denmark's defense force's Joint Arctic Command Search and Rescue Exercise. Argus is a series of 13 simulated coastal and open-ocean scenarios in the Danish-Strait and Nordre Stromfjord. Campbell participated alongside the French navy, Air Greenland, and the Danish navy.
Given the international importance of these operations, Tahoma and Campbell clearly would need a public affairs representative. The Coast Guard’s qualified petty officers were already deployed elsewhere, so another solution was sought.
Enter Kilroy, one of the Coast Guard’s most junior members.
Taking a chance on the non-rate
It is essential to realize that a non-rated person in the Service is the most junior military member. However, a person's junior status neither denies their ability to execute their duties well, nor does it deter great leaders from trusting in the junior person to succeed.
Sending a non-rated person aboard an operational cutter is a risk. The captain and crew might treat the non-rated member as just another of the numerous people it takes to make a cutter operate. They could choose not to invite the non-rated member into meetings, events, situations where most non-rates would not be typically required. They might easily have said "No thank you" when offered the choice to bring a non-rate aboard to conduct a rated petty officer's duties.
But the Atlantic Area external affairs senior staff told the captains about Kilroy’s innate enthusiasm, professionalism, poise, and demeanor. The captains decided to take the chance, and welcomed her aboard.
In the land of icebergs
Once deployed to the Arctic, Kilroy and her camera found their way into most of the two ships’ spaces. Kilroy went out on small boats, and joined the embarked MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew. Her enthusiasm paid off. In daily briefs held at these high levels, it's one thing to discuss applying NATO procedures to test the interoperability of our assets off Greenland. It's another to have dynamic photos showing our assets working together in Eternity Fjord and Disko Bay, Greenland, the world’s most active iceberg-producing area.
Kilroy’s imagery reminds us that people - not ships and aircraft - are behind all these global partnerships.
In the end, U.S. Coast Guard and partners completed over 200 helicopter evolutions, including 16 joint evolutions with the Danish navy. They hosted a key regional leader and welcomed aboard Danish Maj. Gen. Kim Joergensen, commander of Joint Arctic Command, and Mr. Sung Choi, U.S. consul in Nuuk. They enhanced JACO and the U.S. Coast Guard's cooperation and knowledge, building mutual respect and friendships.
Throughout every evolution and every engagement over the entire 85-day mission, Kilroy was present, documenting and relaying the messages of friendship, cooperation, and partnership back to the area commander and senior leaders.
Breaking bread with strangers
One evening, Kilroy found herself in a small diner in Nuuk, Greenland, when she noticed a complete stranger, sitting alone.
So just like she would have done back home in Apex, she bought him dinner.
The stranger turned out to be Greenland's Premier, Mr. Kim Kielsen, one of the most highly placed VIPs in the region, and head of the government in Greenland.
"It's just something I do. Anyone who knows me will tell you that, including my husband," said Kilroy. "I grew up in a family that routinely gives to others. My parents used to carry around sandwiches and socks for those down on their luck. We didn't give money, but we'd give time or buy a meal and spend time with people. Listen to them. People also see me in uniform on occasion. They pay it forward, and I do too. In this case, it happened to be the premier, and we had a nice conversation. I was in the right place at the right time doing what I do; that's all."
Turns out that Kielsen also happens to be a mariner and former police officer. Their friendly conversation led to Kielsen wanting to visit the Campbell, to meet her crew in person. The premier then gave Campbell’s commanding officer a driving tour of Nuuk.
"We could not have been happier with her performance," said Capt. Thomas Crane, the Campbell’s CO. "She enabled top-level real-time visibility of these operations, reaching more than 6.6 million people, and her chance encounter in Nuuk directly strengthened our nation's position in an increasingly competitive Arctic domain through relationship building. Seaman Kilroy is a true shipmate."
Our story does not end quite there, however. Shortly after the Coast Guard wrapped up its joint Arctic exercises, the U.S. consulate wrote a note of thanks, calling the unexpected deckplate diplomacy the unplanned pinnacle of the Coast Guard’s 2020 summer with Greenland and Denmark.
Trust, leadership, professionalism, Coast Guard core values, and simple kindness can have a truly global impact.
Kilroy is now on her way to being a public affairs specialist in the Coast Guard. The Campbell awarded her a Coast Guard Achievement Medal– something very few, if any, non-rated personnel in the Coast Guard wear. Seaman Kilroy is genuinely a strategic Coast Guard member.