To the unfamiliar “cyber-spectators” this may appear to be piling on to a victim who will re-live the accounts of that July 7 every day for the rest of his life. To many Coast Guard members, especially those who have served in command, past and present, Ostebo characterizes a responsible and honorable officer fulfilling his moral obligation to maintain a military system demanding accountability. I guarantee the Ostebo deliberation was not made over coffee in a flippant manner; it was done only after an administrative investigation was thoroughly conducted and much discernment on the part of Ostebo. Military commanders are duty-bound to make far-reaching and difficult decisions that affect the sailors, airmen, and marines entrusted under their charge, and each of their careers.
Consistent with the highest principles of leadership, commanders do not rejoice on the opportunity to place their people in situations where members cannot achieve success, as in court martial proceedings. Ostebo and the Coast Guard will not celebrate a conviction as a victory to the witch-hunt, as some bloggers have suggested.
Ostebo’s decision is, however, remarkable on several fronts. He is a Coast Guard aviator who knows with intimate detail the workings of a MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter and fully understands the requirements, stress, risks and responsibilities associated with cockpit resource management.
Speaking from the perspective of a former Coast Guard ship captain, the aviation community is largely regarded as a tight network and widely viewed as protecting their own. Ostebo was a pilot in Sitka. He knows the community and knew his decision would not endear him locally or with his fellow Coast Guard aviators. With the exception of law enforcement and perhaps judges and district attorneys, few in our society can appreciate agonizing decisions with the potential for life and death outcomes or significant incarceration. Military commanders have this duty in their job description but rarely cherish this responsibility.
We live in a time where it is much easier to take the path of least resistance and bury controversial decisions. We (Americans) are consistently demanding truth, transparency and accountability with Congress, with Big Oil and with Wall Street, but maybe we can’t handle the transparency and truth when accountability has a name and family in a small Alaska community. Ostebo should not be railed on for taking the arduous road demanding the difficult questions be answered and initiating a fair and impartial process to adjudicate the truth. His predecessor, an admiral with a shipboard career, had the opportunity to act assertively in pressing charges through the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or accept a no-action finding. The absence of any decision placed the burden on Ostebo to act 18 months after the tragedy, for an event that did not occur on his watch.
There is a saying to the effect that character is doing the right thing when no one is watching. I would raise the bar to add that honor and responsibility is doing the right thing, even if unpopular, when everyone is watching.
I, for one, will be praying for an acquittal and hope the co-pilot will return to fruitful career serving the nation. This is not incongruent with my support of Ostebo’s decision to demand individual accountability for each of the Alaskan Coast Guardsmen under his stead.
• Uchytil is currently the Juneau port director and retired from the Coast Guard after 27 years in May 2011. He served five tours on Coast Guard icebreakers and commanded the icebreaker Polar Sea from 2007-09.