On his first night in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, July 2021, incoming U.S. Defense Attaché Capt. Gregory Duncan was awakened by a 3 a.m., phone call with shocking news: The country’s president, Jovenel Moise, had just been assassinated.
Twenty minutes later, someone was knocking at Duncan’s door to take him to the embassy. After quick introductions, he and the Haiti team hunkered down in a conference room with other U.S. officials, where they’d spend the next several weeks working 12 to 16-hour days to deal with the crisis that unfolded. It was a dramatic, but apt initiation into one of the Coast Guard’s most challenging attaché posts.
The service currently has 21 diplomatic liaisons in 19 U.S. embassies around the world as part of the Coast Guard Attaché (COGATT) program. These trained attachés support U.S. interests in countries where maritime operations play a significant role, representing the Coast Guard and the Department of Defense overseas.
Defense Secretary Austin Lloyd appointed Duncan to serve as the senior U.S. military official in Haiti and maintains close communications with the U.S. Southern Command’s senior leaders. So far, they’ve had no shortage of matters to discuss. Since July, Haitians have weathered an earthquake and flooding, a refugee crisis, renewed gang violence, a tanker explosion that killed 75 people, and the kidnapping of 17 U.S.-based missionaries that was only resolved when the remaining 12 hostages escaped in December. All this while the country’s senior leaders tried to stabilize governance and track down who murdered their president.
MyCG was fortunate to be able to talk to Duncan twice, most recently in December after the hostage crisis ended and he was attending training in San Juan, Puerto Rico. These interviews have been edited for space and clarity.
So, you had quite the introduction to your new role, even before your first day in the office. What was it like getting up to speed on a new post in a new country in the middle of a crisis?
Basically, I had to just had to do it on the fly. From that first night, it was, “let’s get to work,” and I was, “roger that.”
Did you have any sense of what you were walking into?
I had some. The Coast Guard came to me about this opportunity. They were having challenges getting someone to fill the position. The program office received my name and asked if I would consider this kind of a spot. It was a three-year-commitment, but not one where you could bring a family. In subsequent conversations, the Commandant (Adm. Karl Schultz, who Duncan had worked with before) said it was a tough position, but I was the perfect guy. I just had to decide if it worked for me.
What was it about your background that made you a fit for this job?
I had worked in similar high visibility assignments – as a senior officer at a sector (Los Angeles and Honolulu) and as a Coast Guard liaison officer (LNO), where I dealt with other agencies in emergency response. So, I was used to working within a joint environment where everyone had to come together. I had been the LNO for Maria, Irma, and Harvey. I’m sure that set off some bells and whistles.
Was it a difficult decision?
Well, I’m single and my three children are all in college, so I knew that wouldn’t be a problem. Still, I was in the reserve at the time and very happy doing what I was doing. I was an executive producer, consultant and screenwriter in the television industry, creating content – which I really enjoyed. (Note: Duncan is also a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild who has played roles ranging from a special forces soldier in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D to a U.S. Marshall in CSI: Cyber).
But I also knew this mission was important and have great respect for the senior leadership in the Coast Guard. The commandant has been a great senior mentor to me over the years. He promoted me to captain, which was special.
In the end, we were able to work it out for me professionally, so that I could pause my entertainment career, but still keep an eye on it part time. After that, I signed on.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far in this position?
Obviously, the crises we’ve already mentioned, like dealing with the aftermath of Moise’s death or the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti Aug. 14.
Another challenge has been learning how to work on Haiti time. Anything that happens here takes little bit longer. You might wake up one day to find it takes an hour and half just to get to the office. And if there’s a rainstorm or an earthquake, you can just forget it, because then the roads become impassable. I’ve had to learn to factor that in.
And then there was the kidnapping. (A gang called 400 Mawozo took 17 U.S.-based missionaries hostage Oct. 16, 2021, after the missionary group visited an orphanage in a Port-Au-Prince neighborhood.) No one expected that to go on for two months, but it did. Things just take longer to resolve. We’re here to support Haiti in any way they need, but it’s not our country. We’re not controlling things; we’re using our experience to support them in trying to resolve the issue.
So, I guess there’s no such thing as a typical day for you?
No. Not really. My responsibilities are already split because of my dual roles here. I have two physical offices and two separate staffs.
One is for the Defense Attaché Office (DAO), and the other is for the Security Cooperation Office (SCO). The DAO is where we offer support to the Haitian government. In the kidnapping case, for example, if they needed specialized people or any type of land, sea, or air support, the DAO would provide that.
The SCO handles the stuff we do to build capabilities with our Haitian partners, like some of the exchange programs we have with the Haitian national police. Or with the Haitian coast guard, for example. We’re getting them new boats and training and assessing their capabilities. Additionally, we’ve also worked with the Directorate of Civil Protection (DPC) - Haiti’s Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) equivalent – to build emergency response capabilities because of ongoing incidents.
The great thing is I feel like I'm constantly learning. I work with all these entities, the State Department, the Coast Guard, the Department of Justice. Then, the next day, I’m in a meeting with the NSC (National Security Council). It’s an education.”
What are some successes you’ve had in this position? The things you’re most proud of?
In December, a gas tanker overturned near the country’s second largest city, Cap Haitien. It exploded, killing 75 people and injuring a lot more. We were able to assist by providing and deploying one of the U.S. government’s field hospitals to the Haitian DPC. Our office was also there to provide any medical or other support they needed.
I also think I’ve been good at letting people in my office to know how they contribute. I’m proud of that. You don’t always know when you’re doing something that has an impact. For example, that aircraft coming in to bring resources is going to limit the time and distance people must travel to get help. That’s the team’s doing, and I want them to know that. People get so busy they can forget why they’re doing what they’re doing. I’m constantly telling my people, “Take care of yourself. Don't just turn and burn.”
What’s it been like serving in another country?
Fun and challenging. We work long days, but you find the fun. For me, it’s not just my office. We’re part of a country team. That’s my peer group, and I find we all take care of each other. I’m newer here so I have a fresher perspective. I can help carry the load for people who have not had a break.
It’s also been a creative space to explore ideas that are different. So often we tend to get stuck in all government type stuff. Here it’s easier to get out of the box and be exposed to thoughts that aren’t the norm or mainstream. It’s been a great way to leverage creative thinking to solve or mitigate problems.
What is one thing that will stick with you from this experience for the rest of your career?
Probably the dynamics of Haiti and the resiliency of the Haitian people. In crisis after crisis, their ability to withstand it all and come back and fight is remarkable. The culture here is so hardworking. I pray Haiti finds a footing and catches a break to show its beauty to the world.
What advice you would give to Coast Guard members who are interested in applying for an attaché position?
You have to be outgoing and a multitasker. In addition, you’ve got to be the kind of person who will stand your ground. You can’t waffle. When senior leaders are coming to you and asking what “do you think”, you must be able to talk up the chain and stand firm. You also have to be able to talk down the chain to all senior enlisted and locally employed staff, the State Department people. It’s highly dynamic.
Anything else you’d like to accomplish before you return to the U.S.?
I’m trying to study French. I’ve been getting better but would like to be able to speak it before I leave. I’d also like to make some impact through little wins that are permanent to improve daily life in Haiti.