CAPE MAY – Admiral James S. Gracey, the 17th commandant of the Coast Guard, created the Coast Guard Ombudsman Program, in 1986, with the establishment of the Coast Guard Family Representative Program. The service’s philosophy of developing healthy, self-reliant families is epitomized through the Ombudsman Program.
According to a release, the Coast Guard carries out the program service-wide and established it to serve as a link between commands and families to help ensure everyone has the information necessary to meet the challenges of a military lifestyle.
Additionally, the Ombudsman Program assists commanding officers to better understand the welfare of their unit’s families and better prepare families to meet emergency situations.
At Training Center Cape May (TRACEN), the ombudsman is Melissa Robinson, who is a Coast Guard civilian employee and a reservist.
In October 2018, shortly after arriving at Training Center Cape May, Robinson took on an assistant position to Lacy Milligan – the ombudsman at the time. Robinson was not new to being an ombudsman, however. She held the position at Aviation Detachment GTMO, her husband’s previous unit, working directly with the command and closely with the command master chief and the Navy program, as well.
“It was a good experience, and the training I received at the Fleet and Family Service Center was great,” stated Robinson. “I liked being able to talk with the command about family issues and concerns. I also liked explaining command guidance and messages to families. I just like helping people.”
Ombudsmen are key resources for all family members, especially before and during deployments, relocation, crises and other major life events. Family members may contact the ombudsman regarding a variety of concerns to ask for information, receive guidance or referrals, or discuss their concerns with a caring individual. They provide official and accurate command information and are available for emergency assistance and routine requests.
In 2019, Milligan stepped down. The change of command that year offered an opportunity for Robinson to step into the role of the primary ombudsman. She put her application in and met with the incoming commanding officer, Capt. Kathy Felger. She was accepted for the role.
Historically, ombudsmen are usually spouses of Coast Guard service members attached to the local command, who volunteer in an official capacity and are trained to assist families with information and referrals. For the command, the ombudsman has unique connections and ties to the community. They facilitate free and open discussion and provide a forum where concerns can be brought up in different ways.
For families, it means having someone to reach out to that can ask questions for them. The ombudsman can also help bring down tensions and concerns, oftentimes just by listening.
“The minimum requirements for an ombudsman are a willingness to serve, to help others, and to have some understanding of support resources for Coast Guard members and families,” stated Felger, the commanding officer of Training Center Cape May. “Melissa Robinson may be one of the most over-qualified ombudsmen in the Coast Guard. Her experience from both active and reserve service, as a company commander and Coast Guard spouse brings, so much more to our families and our leadership team here, at TRACEN Cape May.”
Dealing with Covid over the last year, the ombudsman program was a critical communications resource at Training Center Cape May, providing accurate and timely information and bringing family concerns to the attention of the command.
“As the executive officer, I found the position of the ombudsman to be critical in communications to family members who reside in government housing and on the economy,” stated Commander Scott Rae. “Melissa’s in-depth knowledge of the Training Center, Coast Guard programs, and involvement across the board are a force multiplier at a time when the staff is already constrained. This relationship is important to the command, and cannot be underestimated.”
“The TRACEN ombudsman is a key player when it comes to information flow, and problem-solving,” he stated.
“During Covid, I was a central link of information. People were able to reach out with concerns, and I was able to get the answers,” stated Robinson. “They were comfortable talking to me and confident I could provide answers. It was nice to see families support events and build community.”
Robinson saw extra professional benefits from holding the position. She said she now has a better understanding of work-life programs, can more easily identify and anticipate emerging issues, and has built connections throughout the nationwide program.
According to Robinson, being an ombudsman has been a good experience for her. She also identified some characteristics of a good ombudsman that might help those thinking of taking up the role in the future.
“The best ombudsman is someone who is open-minded and is who is supportive of service members, families, and the command,” stated Robinson. “An ombudsman has to have empathy. You have to step back and remember what it is like being new to the Coast Guard.”
On the horizon, Robinson is continuing to build the ombudsman network, support initiatives within the unit by moderating the family group social media page, promoting the MyCG app, and, most importantly, building a community at Training Center Cape May – something she is extremely proud of.
“Ombudsman” is a Swedish term dating back to the 1800s. It means a person who has an ear to the people. It is used worldwide to designate impartial, confidential, and independent offices that receive inquiries and concerns from groups of people and work to achieve fair solutions.
People filling this position are bound by the Ombudsman Code of Conduct, which says each ombudsman shall support the command’s mission, respect the command and family members, maintain confidentiality, avoid conflicts of interest, and maintain the highest standards of professionalism.
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