If you ask Brian Runion what he thought of his time at the Coast Guard Academy, he’s not going to sugarcoat his answer.
“I hated it bitterly,” he told Task & Purpose. “It definitely improved me as a person, but it’s a difficult place to be. It has a very regimented lifestyle, and when you listen to all your friends talk about having a great time in college while you’re sitting in the barracks shining your shoes, it’s not the best time.”
So it’s surprising that now, 14 years after graduating from the academy and nine years after leaving the service, Runion still works for the Coast Guard as a civilian. And when he’s not working, he’s trying to start a small revolution in how Americans, other service members, and even fellow Coasties see the country’s smallest, most-forgotten, and most-chronically-underfunded military branch.
What caused this change from disaffected cadet to tireless advocate? Turns out all it took were a few history lessons.
“My senior year I took a course on maritime history and the history of the Coast Guard,” Runion said. “As I took this course and listened to all the things this service has done, I realized ‘wow this service is really important.’ We’re not the bulk of the fighting force, but every now and then we did a little thing that shifted how everything went.”
When most people think of the Coast Guard, they think of Coasties busting drug subs or plucking distressed mariners out of stormy seas, Runion explained. And while those missions are vital to national safety and security during peacetime, they leave out the Coast Guard’s 230 years of distinguished and impactful — yet largely unnoticed wartime service.
That service includes:
- Sinking U-boats in World War I
- Destroying Japanese and German coastal stations in World War II
- Bluffing 300 Germans into surrendering a fort in France shortly after D-Day
- Disrupting Vietcong supply lines during the Vietnam War
- Capturing Iraqi mine-layers during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
- Outshooting the Marine Corps in a 2018 sniper competition
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By sharing more of these stories, Runion hopes to correct the notion that the Coast Guard isn’t really part of the military, or doesn’t kick ass when the chips are down.
“It’s one thing to point to a law saying we’re part of the military, but it’s another thing to tell stories about us blowing up Japanese installations in Burma during World War II,” he said.
Runion tells several of those stories through his comic project: Claw of Knowledge. The name comes from a claw-like hand gesture Runion would make when making a point at the academy, which his fellow cadets took to calling ‘the claw of knowledge.’
Like its namesake, the comics riff on Runion’s experience in the Coast Guard. Runion spent much of his five years of service on a cutter patrolling the west coast and looking for drug runners sailing out of Colombia. There are jokes in the comic about outdated equipment falling apart; grumpy chief petty officers and their caffeine addiction; and the usual challenges of dealing with a government bureaucracy.
If those all sound like typical themes of military life, there’s one aspect of Claw humor which stands out: the constant belittlement from other service members or civilians who don’t consider the Coast Guard a military branch. In fact, the whole reason Runion started the Claw was because he was sick of explaining his service to people.
“I wasn’t planning to become a cartoonist, but I was getting tired of having to explain to people what the Coast Guard is,” he said. “So I wrote up “5 Awesome Facts About the Coast Guard,” and I thought it would be a lot funnier with cartoons.”
Runion doesn’t consider himself a great artist, but he did have years of practice putting together PowerPoint presentations,”which I think is the one skill the military gives all of us,” he said. Pretty soon, the post blew up, and Coast Guardsmen of all rates and grades were sharing it with their friends and family.
“This list was quick, funny, easy to read, and it told people what their service was about,” Runion said. “I’d given people a way to explain what it is they do.”
The initial five awesome facts gave way to another five, and pretty soon Runion published a book called “25 Awesome Facts about the Coast Guard: Odd and Interesting Truths About America’s Most-Forgotten Military Branch.”
Runion knew he’d made a splash after sitting in a briefing one day at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington D.C.
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“The Deputy Commandant of Operations, a three-star admiral, goes to his aide and says ‘go get the book,’” said Runion, who was working as a civilian at the time. “The aide comes back with ‘25 Facts,’ and the admiral holds it up and says ‘This thing is a great Christmas book,’ and he gave me a challenge coin. It was the first time anyone gave me a challenge coin.”
Runion is now working on a second book, “The Best Cutters of the Best Coast Guard.” It’s been a slow process, partly because unlike other branches, there aren’t a ton of readable books about Coast Guard history.
“The Navy has an entire Naval History and Heritage Command,” Runion said. “We don’t have that, we’re a small service. We’re always doing something, but I don’t think we’ve thought hard about keeping a record of what we’re doing.”
That means Runion has to do a lot of historical research himself, like poring through the National Archives for digitized cutter logs and interviews of Coast Guard vets.
“The first biography written about a Coastie was about a dog,” said Runion, who added that much of the Coast Guard’s early records were lost when the British burned down much of Washington D.C. in the War of 1812.
Runion hopes to have the book done by the end of the year, but in the meantime he continues to post hilarious stick figure drawings of Coast Guard life on his website, Instagram and Facebook pages.
But as the saying goes, it’s all fun and games until your entire branch has to work without pay for 35 days, which is exactly what happened in early 2019 when the government had to shut down because Congress couldn’t keep it funded.
“That was a really rough moment for the service,” said Runion, who was furloughed because of the shutdown. “The Claw basically became my full-time job.”
A series of stick figures holding signs saying “Will guard coast for food” or “Bring back rum rations,” went viral in Coastie circles, to the point where someone got a tattoo of it, Runion said.
“I think people just needed a way to express how they’re feeling,” he explained. “People reached out to me and were like ‘thank you for your comics, they help us get through this,’ which I didn’t expect to happen.”
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For Runion, the shutdown also helped connect the dots that maybe the reason the Coast Guard went unfunded for so long is because many people, including members of Congress, don’t understand how important the branch is for national security. Oddly enough, that’s something the Coast Guard and the Marine Corps had in common at one point.
“During the 1920s, both the Coast Guard and the Marine Corps faced the specter of dissolution,” Runion wrote in a 2019 article for the U.S. Naval Institute. “For the Coast Guard, this would have meant merging into the Navy; for the Marine Corps, the Army.”
Believe it or not, there was a time in American history when the Marine Corps wasn’t widely-known as a mythical bastion of badassdom. It took a concentrated public relations campaign from Marines at all levels to justify their existence to Congress, Runion explained. How did they do that? By pulling badass stories from their past and present and yelling them to the crowd.
“As one journalist noted in 1936, the Corps had created a culture where ‘All Marines are star reporters,’” Runion wrote. “Warriors hurried back from the battlefield to broadcast tales of their exploits. This gave the small service a long reach, helped by something all Marines’ stories contained: action.”
If the Coast Guard wants to solidify its place in the military, it should make like the Marines by rediscovering and sharing stories that exemplify its wartime duties, Runion argued. Luckily, the branch has a deep well to draw from.
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“Few Coasties have heard of the Coast Guard Landing Party, a riverine raiding force that operated in the jungles of Vietnam and who, in one spectacular raid, killed 10 enemy soldiers and captured 59,” Runion wrote. “Fewer still have heard of Patrol Bombing Squadron 6, the Coast Guard’s seaplane-bomber detachment, which flew convoy escort missions out of Greenland in World War II.”
Even more interesting: the Coast Guard also helped create the Navy SEALs. During WWII, the Office of Strategic Services’ Maritime Unit, which conducted covert warfare missions at sea, specifically recruited Coasties because of their skills in small-boat handling, swimming, and communications, Runion wrote on his website.
A third of the unit’s 226 members were Coasties, and their methods, tactics and tools served as the basis for the SEALs and all combat swimmers, he said. Coast Guardsmen also braved surf and shellfire while delivering amphibious troops during WWII, and they played an outsized role guarding convoys sailing across the Atlantic.
“Naval historians generally overlook the Coast Guard’s participation in the Battle of the Atlantic,” wrote Coast Guard historian William H. Thiesen in a 2016 article for Naval History Magazine. “The service’s fleet of medium- and high-endurance cutters, as well as numerous Coast Guard–crewed destroyer escorts and patrol frigates, served a vital role as convoy escorts.”
One Coast Guard ship in particular, the USS Big Horn, was a heavily-armed tanker that would lure U-boats in before unmasking its hidden guns and attacking them, Thiesen wrote.
Even if not a single Congressman reads his books, Runion hopes that these stories will at least help Coasties feel confident that their military service was as valid as that of any other service member.
“People in the Coast Guard will assume they’re not in the military,” he said. “But if you have someone who did essentially the exact same thing in another service, no one will think twice before saying ‘thank you for your service,’ to them, and they won’t feel bad about going to Applebee’s and getting a free meal on Veterans Day.”
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Truth be told, the joke that the Coast Guard isn’t really part of the military has had a no-joke impact on Coasties themselves. A few years ago, Runion was on a Facebook forum for Coast Guardsmen when someone asked a troubling question about getting treatment for PTSD from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“He was like ‘I don’t really feel like I was in the military, so I don’t think I should do it,’” Runion recalled. “People in the Coast Guard feel like they didn’t serve, and I don’t want people to not seek treatment because of that.”
Runion wasn’t the first to see that happen. Google “Coast Guard VA benefits,” and you’ll find several legal websites clarifying that yes, Coasties are entitled to the same benefits as the rest of the military.
“For some reason Coast Guard veterans are under the impression that they are not entitled to VA Disability Benefits,” writes the website for Woods and Woods, LLC. “That is plain wrong! Coast Guard veterans are eligible for VA Disability Benefits just like everyone else that served active duty.”
Maybe the Claw of Knowledge can help with that impression.
“We get treated like we’re not in the military but we are,” Runion said, “and the way you change that is through the stories people tell about it.”