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Skidmore College

Guardian of the Great Lakes: Michael Cavanagh ’03

April 23, 2024
by Angela Valden

Throughout his 18-year career in the U.S. Coast Guard, Michael Cavanagh ’03 has responded to numerous hurricanes on American soil, the aftermath of the Maui wildfires, a tsunami in American Samoa, an earthquake in Haiti, the capsizing of a cargo ship, and two pipeline spills. He has also provided special security at events including President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

“There are two driving factors for me: I want to defend the country and I want to serve and give back to the country, but I also want to help people,” he says. “It’s a unique opportunity as a military branch to be able to directly help citizens in their own backyards and in their homes.”

Now, as the enforcement branch chief in the Ninth Coast Guard District, Cmdr. Cavanagh is responsible for all aspects of maritime law enforcement across the expansive Great Lakes region and the St. Lawrence Seaway.

“We’re the guardians of the Great Lakes. Busiest from Memorial Day through Labor Day, we do a lot of search and rescue. We have active recreational boating activity on the Great Lakes and many people who aren’t necessarily experienced and need our help.”

His current role also demands that he lead his branch in navigating complex issues while respecting international sovereignty along the shared border with Canada.

“For instance, what do we do if there’s an active shooter on a boat that’s on the Canadian side, but we’re on the U.S. side? Are we able to have our boat crews respond and save lives? So, (we’re) trying to figure out issues like that, and how to do it legally without causing an international incident.”

Cavanagh, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, attended Skidmore with the assistance of a Kettering grant. He celebrated his 20th Skidmore Reunion this past June.

“I fell in love with the campus immediately, fell in love with the school, the feeling of being there. I ended up loving those four years there — they were some of the best of my life. I still have good, lifelong friends from the College.”

Cavanagh majored in government (now political science) and particularly enjoyed the ability to jump between disciplines to explore different courses and being challenged by Skidmore professors.

Associate Professor of Political Science Bob Turner “pushed me to realize levels of critical thought in state and local government that I hadn’t even considered before,” Cavanagh says.

He also fondly remembers serving in Student Government Association and the engaging discussions that played out during sessions.

“It was just great to see people taking it seriously and practicing and honing their skills for respectful debate, which is something I think people need now more than ever — to speak with passion and respectfully disagree with each other without being insulting.”

It’s about Creative Thought Matters, but it’s also about being lifelong learners. And that was something that always stuck with me throughout my tenure at Skidmore College — you never stop learning, you should always be hungry for more information, and you should always be looking to unwind those complex issues. So that’s a parallel with the United States Coast Guard — to constantly keep improving and learning.
Michael Cavanagh '03

An internship in the Cleveland office of then-Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jane Campbell prepared Cavanagh for a career in local government after graduation. He went to work for Campbell as she campaigned to become Cleveland’s first female mayor and served under her after she was elected.

“I did that for a few years and enjoyed it, but it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, so I enlisted in the Coast Guard Reserve in 2005.”

The following year, he attended Reserve Officer Candidate Indoctrination at the Coast Guard Academy and received his commission. He was almost immediately activated in support of Hurricane Katrina and assumed the duties of finance section chief for the more than $264 million recovery operation.

Cavanagh began his active-duty career at the Coast Guard Headquarters Office of Law Enforcement in Washington, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant. From there, he moved to an operational unit in Long Island Sound, where he was chief of emergency management and force readiness. A special assignment as a program reviewer took him back to Coast Guard Headquarters in D.C., where he crafted strategic communications with the Department of Homeland Security, White House, and Congress to support and defend the Coast Guard’s budget.

Cavanagh’s next assignment was to another operational unit, this time in North Carolina. There, he served as incident management division chief, leading responses to hurricanes Dorian and Isaias, as well as complex environmental protection operations involving multiple grounded large commercial fishing vessels.

The recipient of a Meritorious Service Medal, seven Coast Guard Commendation Medals, three Coast Guard Achievement Medals, two Commandant’s Letters of Commendation, and numerous unit and service awards, Cavanagh still finds that every day brings with it a new opportunity to learn and grow, especially as he navigates his current role as Ninth Coast Guard District commander.

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