Patriot Profiles: ‘You have to drill down into what’s really important’

This column presents “Patriot Profiles” to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.

By Jeanne McKinney

Coast Guard maritime law enforcement never sleeps as smugglers, traffickers, and law-breakers fly on the waves toward U.S shores. Undetected drug contraband snakes its way inland coast to coast, ending up in the hands of experimenting teens, despondent adults, gang members who fight over it and addicts who can’t fight against it. It’s a cargo of documented heartbreak and loss.

Lt. Cmdr. Matthew N. Jones is based at Coast Guard Sector San

Diego, acting as head of law enforcement. He states what the Coast Guard does is critical.

“We want to make sure our borders are secure. If we can’t control it, then the possibilities of what smugglers (and other criminals) can bring into the United States is really unlimited. That’s our most important role here and one I think most Americans understand. I don’t think anyone wants porous borders.”

From his command post, Jones directs operations, vectoring Coast Guard assets with other government and local law enforcement resources. He states, “My policy has always been ‘people first.’ Make sure your folks are taken care of and have a clear direction.

“‘Mission’ is second most important — doing what we’re supposed to be doing and accomplishing as much as we can. That parlays into ‘value’ — making sure we’re doing it the right way, being efficient with our resources and doing the best we can with what we have.”

Jones maximizes his force of four cutters, a small boat station and a Sector boarding team. “Those are the guys that are going out and executing the operations,” he said. “It’s tough — the reality is cutters, boats, and aircraft can only cover so much ocean. Time, speed, distance and the length of the maritime border [adds challenge to] the apparent willingness of smugglers to push farther and farther offshore. They’re going distances we wouldn’t go in a 25-30 foot wooden boat.”

According to Department of Homeland Security maritime smuggling statistics, in 2013 there were 123 seizures, 616 apprehensions, and 93,200 pounds of narcotics confiscated. In 2012, narcotics confiscated were 117,900 pounds.

Jones has been very pleased with the number of interdictions he and his crew have been involved with, crediting discipline, teamwork and commitment.

A native of the Burlington, Wash., area, Jones likes discipline, a trait he learned while attending Western Washington University. He rowed on a team for three years, a time when he met his wife, also a rower. Continuing his studies, in 1997 he enlisted for four years in the Coast Guard Reserves and became active duty upon completing college. He was accepted into the Coast Guard Officer Candidate School and graduated in June 2001.

Later in September that year, he was stationed at Group Boston, his first tour of duty. “I was in Yorktown, Va., when 9/11 happened, at Search and Rescue School.” When he returned to Boston, the Coast Guard had established unified commands. “We had a port security unit…a lot of guys in cammies with arms at our front gate.

“One of our main missions,” he says, “that continues to this day, was escorting liquid natural gas tankers. I would be out there as Patrol Commander trying to manage all the assets, a lot of state and local boats, helicopters — so coordinating that was always interesting.”

After 9/11, the Coast Guard established Maritime Safety Security Teams (MSSTs). “They’re a deployable force that goes throughout the country [to strategic ports] taking boats and law enforcement personnel to provide protection.”

In San Francisco, Jones was a plank owner (member of the first crew assigned to a unit). “Ramping up for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military had to load ammunition, tanks and whatever they need to ships. They would send our (MSST) to provide security. “

After two tours, the Coast Guard selected Jones for what he calls “an amazing program.”

“I always had an interest in going to law school. I was a ‘Law & Order’ (TV show) fan as a kid.”

Jones’ payback tour was in the 13th Coast Guard district in Seattle as lieutenant staff attorney, covering many fields of law. “Any of our mission areas all have legal components to them.”

Jones said being a prosecutor at court-martial proceedings was always challenging. “My view is they’re good people overall probably, but made bad decisions — obviously used poor judgment on one or more occasions. I was kind of a bleeding heart. When you start talking about putting people in jail, it’s never a great feeling. … The military justice system is codified in the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” informing, “the actual laws come from Congress.”

Law school was a big row for Jones. “Hopefully you’re there because you’re interested in law and [its] principles. It didn’t necessarily feel like work. It was a great experience,” he says.

The Coast Guard offers a dual career path for officers. “I did a legal tour and now I’m back in a response job, where I get to do operations again.” Jones says close to the field is where most officers strive to be.

His legal background fits well dealing with smugglers and migrants, leading his crews to exercise U.S. law and authority on territorial seas and international waters. A non-compliant boat can expect a “right of visit” boarding, verification of nationality and possible confiscation, detainment, arrest and investigation. Whatever flag you wave, “You’re a little piece of that country wherever you go.”

Career pearls for Jones include learning, “how to be flexible and adjust on the fly to accomplish whatever mission or task you’ve been given. You have to drill down into what’s really important.”

All holidays off were never expected and Jones knew family birthdays would be missed. “I feel like I’m doing something valuable and important. The reality with border security is that you can never fully secure it. That’s why it’s important we’re up and running and are doing the best we can.”