Back in 2001, then Lt. j.g. Eric Casler almost made it to the Arctic Circle while he was assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea. But when mechanical problems cut that mission short near Nome, Alaska, he figured he’d missed his chance.
So, this past June, Casler was thrilled to be on site as the U.S. Coast Guard engaged in joint Arctic exercises with Danish and Greenlandic military forces – not as a crewmember this time, but in his new role as now Cmdr. Casler, Coast Guard representative military attaché in Denmark.
Casler serves in one of 21 Coast Guard attaché positions in U.S. embassies around the world. Since 1987, the Coast Guard Attaché Program (COGATT) has trained and selected members to work as part of the diplomatic teams in countries where maritime operations play a significant role. An accredited COGATT liaison represents the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Defense overseas. In some countries, such as Haiti, the COGATT is the senior U.S. military representative in country. In this role, they observe and report significant events in the country, look for ways to strengthen partnerships between countries, and provide advice and consultation as needed.
Casler, who previously served as attaché to the Dominican Republic from 2013-2016, agreed to talk to MyCG about his new post and the COGATT program. We caught up with him on one of those long, sunny August days in Copenhagen, shortly after his wife and two of his five children (the older three are staying in the U.S. for college) had arrived from Virginia to join him at their new home.
How's the new job?
It’s great. Embassies vary, probably like ships. You have different morale and things. Everyone here is really good at what they do, which makes it an enjoyable assignment. I’m the first Coast Guard officer assigned here so people are curious – they’ve been interacting with other attachés – Army, Air Force, Navy and now, it’s, “Tell me about the Coast Guard.”
It’s also been interesting interacting with the host country, getting to see Danish operations in the port and how they do maritime law and fisheries. That’s what I’m comfortable with and have spent a lot of time doing, especially in the Arctic.
Is that what drew you to the position?
Definitely. The position in Denmark was just created last year. When I saw that I met the criteria, I knew I had to apply. I sought my family’s buy-in because they really influence how successful an overseas assignment will be and they were thrilled at the prospect. I previously served as a Coast Guard attaché in the Dominican Republic and really enjoyed that assignment. This was an opportunity to do similar work in an area I had studied academically for some time. I have a master’s degrees in both International Relations and Intelligence.
What’s your typical day like?
That’s a tricky question, there isn’t a typical day. That’s one of the things that makes the position so interesting! I spend a lot of time in the embassy, but also outside, working with host nation military and government officials. Generally, my job is recognizing opportunities that would advance national interests. To find out, I had to often make a cold call to officials and start a dialogue. I also do a lot with visiting U.S. military present in the region. An attaché is behind the scenes to support receptions on ships or an event that was featured in the press. Some days you’re accompanying senior U.S. military officers to meet with Danish counterparts and other days you’re working with local governments to help ensure a U.S. Coast Guard cutter can pull into port. Still other days you’re participating in exchanges, events, and ceremonies with host nation and other diplomats.
What are some of the most common questions you get in this position?
As I said before, it’s not unusual for someone to be surprised the Coast Guard has an attaché in Copenhagen.
I also often get questions from the host country’s navy, maritime, or law enforcement officials asking how the Coast Guard might address something. It’s usually a local and senior government official looking to set up an exchange, so I would be the one who would know both parties. I’m the go between.
Do you ever get asked about complex American diplomacy issues?
Yes, that has come up. As a diplomat, you don’t dispute or have to embrace any particular policy. For example, the subject of the U.S. buying Greenland still occasionally comes up. When that happens, I usually half-jokingly point out that we [America] purchased both Alaska and the Western half of the U.S. Fortunately, Department of State Secretary [Antony] Blinken recently clarified that the U.S. is not trying to buy Greenland. We recognize it is part of the Kingdom of Denmark.
What are some successes you've had in this position?
Within two weeks of arriving in Denmark, I had the opportunity to meet the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations and accompany him on much of his visit here. A couple weeks after that I was in Nuuk, Greenland at the same time that the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Maple was in port. I was able to join a couple Danish officers for a friendly “Heat and Beat” pin-flattening competition on the ship. (Spoiler alert: His team won). The engagement with senior decision makers and putting the right people together to advance our international relationships is an aspect of the position I really enjoy. It’s exciting to see connections that wouldn’t have been made if the Coast Guard hadn’t been here.
What challenges have you faced in this position? How have you overcome them?
As I said, the attaché job really is great, and I enjoy almost all aspects of it. The challenges generally involve learning to conduct daily activities in a foreign country. When you’re there for an extended period of time and the car needs repairs or an oil change, when the kids need a doctor or emergency care, etc., all those things are a little more difficult. In the Dominican Republic, just driving to work could be a hair-raising experience. Here the food is different and sorting your garbage is a whole process. It’s an adventure. You can choose to embrace the uniqueness or not. But you’re not on vacation, you’re trying to get work done.
Probably the biggest sacrifice is that my kids miss some opportunities they’d have in the U.S. Granted, they have different, really great opportunities in overseas assignments, but they’re not the same as what their friends in the U.S. have. Youth sports for example, can be very different depending on which country you’re in. My daughter loved softball, which she couldn’t really play in the Dominican Republic. When we moved back home, she found she was too far behind to catch up.
What advice would you give personnel interested in applying for an attaché position?
I learned about attachés early in my career and met some in Australia when I was on the Coast Guard Polar Sea. So, I feel like I put attaché assignments on my dream sheet long before I was eligible for the positions. There aren’t very many of these billets, so I believe they can be competitive. Assignment officers or the attaché program manager could probably provide better answers on what specifically they look for. I think my master’s degrees in International Relations and Strategic Intelligence helped as did broad exposure to Coast Guard operational missions and prior assignments within the Coast Guard intelligence enterprise.
What do you hope to achieve during your time in Copenhagen?
I’m hoping to walk away leaving a really solid engagement strategy between the Coast Guard and Denmark in Greenland. There’s a lot of value the Coast Guard can provide to Greenland, and we can benefit from understanding the high latitude operations the Danes have been doing there.
We definitely expect to see more traffic in the Arctic. We rely on partners to operate in that region. If we have a pollution event there or a cruise ship in distress – we may need assistance from foreign partners to help us respond. We hope growing these partnerships and working together will enhance cooperation. The more activity that takes place up there, the more exposure to potential risk. When something happens, the Coast Guard wants to be in a position to react.
Any other things on your wish list?
There are two Coast Guard aviators from WWII who remain lost on Greenland. Lt. John Pritchard and Petty Officer First Class Benjamin Bottoms went down in a sea plane on the southeast coast of Greenland in 1942, while trying to rescue a bomber crew. A search team thought they located the plane in a glacier in 2012, but a subsequent mission couldn’t find it, so it might have shifted. There’s an ongoing operation to find these guys and bring them back home. I want to do anything I can to get interest in that.
When I was attaché in the Dominican Republic, I met the son of someone who was rounded up with the conspirators when [then President Rafael] Trujillo, a dictator who was assassinated in 1961. This man’s father had resisted Trujillo and credits the U.S. Airforce attaché, who was there at the time, with saving his life. The attaché intervened and spoke with the ambassador. Although nothing like that has happened to me, I’m humbled to be part of that history.
For more information please email the program manager and coordinator Lt. Cmdr. Shannon Peifer or Donald Wiley.