Lt. Chelsea Sheehy remembers exactly what one of her mentors at the Coast Guard Academy told her in 2010: “The greatest things in life don’t come easy.”
Back then, Sheehy was a cadet struggling to get through an engineering class. Now, she has just wrapped up a tour as the commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Charles Sexton out of Key West, Florida.
Sheehy, the Military Times’ 2023 Coast Guardsman of the Year, said she shares the advice she received with all those she now guides.
“Because I had really good mentors, it has, I suppose, made me a good mentor,” Sheehy told Military Times.
Those who work with Sheehy describe her as an inspiration to crew members and say she has fostered a culture of trust and teamwork aboard the Sexton, which boasts a crew of 23 members.
Cmdr. Rick Armstrong, deputy commander of Coast Guard Sector Key West, described her as “squarely on track to be one of the service’s brightest future leaders.”
“Simply put, she is my best commanding officer,” said Armstrong, who nominated Sheehy for the honor.
“She puts the needs of her crew first, doggedly working to ensure they have the training and resources to develop themselves and achieve their personal and professional goals,” Armstrong wrote. “She continually teaches and mentors others both on and off her ship, helping those around her achieve their qualification goals, career aspirations and personal achievements.”
Sheehy, who previously served as executive officer of the cutter Galveston Island in Honolulu, Hawaii, is the only female commanding officer of the six fast-response cutters based in Key West.
“It has been the most rewarding job of my career,” she said, “and I don’t think there could be something better than this.
“My biggest role in the job is being an advocate for the crew,” Sheehy said. “I’m recounting how just about every person on the crew is either promoting, advancing or ready to promote or advance. We have folks who are getting awards, I have folks who are wanting to stay afloat — and it’s hard to keep people afloat sometimes. … It’s just been very rewarding to be a part of that process, and then help someone be a part of that process.”
The Sexton is responsible for patrolling the Caribbean Sea to halt illicit trafficking, as well as coordinating interdiction efforts and repatriation of migrants at sea. Sheehy’s team has interdicted, cared for and processed more than 2,500 migrants, to include rescuing migrants from a capsized vessel off the coast of Key West last May. They have also repatriated 1,021 migrants to their country of origin.
“While they’re on our cutter, we provide food, water and other assistance as best we can to the scope of our practice,” Sheehy said.
“The migrant mission, it’s a hard mission,” she added. “It’s moms, babies and dads with their small children, too. So, there is an empathetic side to this mission as well that is draining for the average person.”
Sheehy said she usually checks in with her crew after these migrant missions to gauge their mental and emotional state, since many also have children of similar ages.
During U.S. Southern Command’s Continuing Promise 2022 mission in response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Haiti, Sheehy served as the senior U.S. Coast Guard representative coordinating response operations aboard the USNS hospital ship Comfort. Medical personnel treated more than 1,000 patients while in Haiti, and the experience provided Sheehy an opportunity to collaborate with other branches of the military as part of a joint operation.
“We were all tasked with one operation and our ultimate goal was this mission success,” Sheehy said. “So, that cohesiveness, that teamwork is something that I will take away from it.”
Sheehy was tapped to promote to lieutenant commander above the zone in 2023 — meaning she will advance a year before her peers.
Her next assignment is serving as a duty officer in the White House Situation Room, where she will monitor national security issues and field phone calls and correspondence that comes through there.
“I knew that this job was a really unique opportunity — a great learning experience,” she said.
She is no stranger to Washington, having previously served as a congressional fellow for Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, and she said that experience on Capitol Hill led her to apply for the job. Additionally, she is pursuing a master of arts in national security studies with a concentration in homeland security from American Military University.
As a leader, Sheehy said it’s most important to prioritize your people.
“Remembering that your people always have to come first — that is a good sign of leadership, right?” she said. “The mission will always get done. We’re always going to get the metrics. We’re always going to get that, and we’re going to be good at it because we’re putting the people first.”