Rear Adm. Matthew Bell is retiring from command of Coast Guard District 17 after 36 years of service in the Coast Guard. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Rear Adm. Matthew Bell is retiring from command of Coast Guard District 17 after 36 years of service in the Coast Guard. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Coast Guard District 17 CO looks back on decades of service

Big things are coming for Alaska, the admiral says.

As Rear Adm. Matthew T. Bell retires from the Coast Guard, handing command over to incoming commander Rear Adm. Nathan A. Moore today, Bell took a moment to look back at his 36 years of service and to the future of the Coast Guard in Alaska.

Bell entered the Coast Guard in 1985, intent on a brief and educational stint before going back to the civilian world, he said.

“I was going to do four years, do some technical training, and do some of the fabled on-the-job-training,” Bell said in an interview. “I forgot to get off the bus, and here I am.”

Bell joined the Coast Guard after seeing them in action over the beaches of North Carolina during family vacations.

“The Coast Guard gave my uncle a ticket one day, and I said ‘They give my uncle a ticket! I like them,’” Bell said. “I like the mission set: search and rescue and protecting the environment. I saw that on the beaches of North Carolina.”

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Bell went on to a varied and extended career sailing waters of the high Arctic to supporting security operations in Bahrain.

“I’ve sailed America’s tall ship (USCGC Eagle) across the North Atlantic in the spring. I’ve sailed it from Gibraltar to Bermuda with no electronics. I got to swim north of the Arctic circle,” Bell said. “I’ve met four different presidents doing this job. From the deck of the Eagle to the commencement at the Coast Guard Academy to travels in Bahrain. It’s very unique. I got to stand up the bridge and navigate the Eagle with President (George H.W.) Bush. We talked about fish and fishing.”

Bell is no stranger to Alaska, first coming here decades ago.

“My wife loves it. I’ve liked Alaska since the first time I came up here in late ‘88 and ‘89,” Bell said. “When I was first assigned up here and brought the family here, my wife said, ‘I like it here!’”

Bell has had several tours in the state, including one of his most memorable command tours, as captain of the USCGC Alex Haley, homeported in Kodiak.

“CO of Alex Haley was the most rewarding. We had some really challenging cases,” Bell said. “It was a smaller crew, but the ship was incredibly capable.”

Bell will retire to Kodiak, where his wife, Nancy, already resides.

His first priority?

Getting some work done on his house and enjoying the freedom.

“I’m going to go fishing or hunting on my time, and sometimes, I may even be doing both,” Bell said.

There will be things he misses, though, Bell said.

“I love all the friendships and all the partnerships,” Bell said. “I’m gonna miss the connections most of all. The connections with the Native communities, the connections with our partners, the connections with the Coast Guardsmen standing the watch.”

Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire 
Rear Adm. Matthew Bell is retiring from command of Coast Guard District 17 after 36 years of service in the Coast Guard.

Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire Rear Adm. Matthew Bell is retiring from command of Coast Guard District 17 after 36 years of service in the Coast Guard.

In good hands

As Bell departs as commander of District 17, he’s leaving the command in good condition, he said.

“As far as the district goes, I think Adm. Moore is in great shape. We have great staff, great units. I think I’m leaving him in a great place,” Bell said. “That saying, I think we have some new challenges. We really haven’t slowed down operations, but we have slowed down engagement with those coastal communities. That’s taken a toll.”

As the Coast Guard in Alaska transitions out of pandemic conditions and forward deploys its assets for the summer fishing season, Bell said, they’ll need to reengage with their partners across Coast Guard’s biggest district.

“People will see more engagement in the maritime and coastal communities through fiscal year 2021-2022,” Bell said. “Our operations and exercises are going to continue to strengthen the partnerships we had.”

The Coast Guard is especially deeply involved with Alaskans because of the unique and demanding conditions across the state. The Coast Guard had flown between 1,700 and 1,800 search-and-rescue missions in the last three years, Bell said.

“651 Alaskans are alive because of direct involvement with UCSG search and rescue missions. That summarizes the value of the Coast Guard mission up here,” Bell said. “Coast Guard members are usually good at what they do, but they come up here and they become great.”

More Coast Guardsmen are going to have the opportunity soon as the Coast Guard improves infrastructure in Kodiak, Seward, Ketchikan and Sitka in anticipation of more cutters being homeported in Alaska, including improved waterside and shoreside facilities, Bell said.

“The coast guard needs more resources. We need that at large. Could we use those here? Certainly,” Bell said. “The demand for Coast Guard is increasing across the world.”

Four more 154-foot Fast Response Cutters and two of 360-foot Offshore Patrol Cutters still under construction are slated for Alaska, supporting a growing national security and fisheries regulation mission in international waters. Soon, the medium icebreaker USCGC Healy will be deployed north to transition the Northwest Passage, Bell said.

Additionally, two of the Polar Security Cutters just now being laid down to replace the Coast Guard’s aging icebreaking fleet will operate in the district, said Bell. While the PSCs will be homeported in Seattle to take advantage of facilities there, Bell said, they’ll operate up north in America’s Arctic waters.

“It’s been our honor to serve here. It’s a great place to finish our Coast Guard tour,” Bell said. “The work that the Coast Guard men and women do here is phenomenal.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File 
The USCGC Healy, the Coast Guard’s only medium icebreaker, lies moored to the pier in Juneau as it returns to Seattle at the end of deployment, Oct. 27, 2019.

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File The USCGC Healy, the Coast Guard’s only medium icebreaker, lies moored to the pier in Juneau as it returns to Seattle at the end of deployment, Oct. 27, 2019.

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