Honor, Respect, Devotion to Duty: Cmdr. Zeita Merchant

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Written by Master Chief Petty Officer Alan R. Haraf

Cmdr. Zeita Merchant stands aboard a Coast Guard smallboat.

Cmdr. Zeita Merchant, commanding officer of Marine Safety Unit Chicago, was presented with the 2017 Capt. David H. Jarvis Inspirational Leadership Award by the Navy League in Portland, Oregon, on June 7. The award was presented to the Coast Guard officer who made outstanding contributions to the high standards of leadership traditions in the Coast Guard.

Merchant was born in Chicago, and her assignment to the Marine Safety Unit has not only been historical, but has come full circle to allow her to build a legacy in her hometown. As a true embodiment of leadership, her executive officer and crew nominated her for this award because of her extraordinary desire to serve those she leads – not only at her unit, but in the surrounding community and maritime industry. Merchant’s command philosophy motivates and inspires the crew to acknowledge one another’s value and perform with a spirit of excellence. All members of MSU Chicago, from onboarding through tour completion, are encouraged to personify this, and are positively recognized for exhibiting result-oriented behaviors that demonstrate excellence isn’t an every-once-in-awhile activity, but is instead an integral aspect of our singular, operationally elite standards. Vice Adm. Michael McAllister (right), deputy commandant for mission support, and Alan Kaplan, national president of the Navy League, present Cmdr. Zeita Merchant, commanding officer of Marine Safety Unit Chicago, with the Captain David H. Jarvis Award for Inspirational Leadership, during the 2018 Navy League National Convention held in Portland, Ore., June 8, 2018.

“Cmdr. Merchant’s command philosophy motivates and inspires us daily to acknowledge one another’s value and to perform with a spirit of excellence,” said Chief Petty Officer Daniell Lashbrook, marine safety technician at MSU Chicago. “She cultivates a positive and innovative unit culture that allows members to achieve their full potential.”

Heavily charged with maintaining safety and security of maritime life and property in the third largest city in the nation, Merchant ensures the Coast Guard remains relevant by leading and training her staff to be both maritime law enforcers and valued partners supporting the multitudes of activity necessary for making our maritime transportation system most effective. Merchant has transformed the unit’s performance and even larger Coast Guard policies with forward-leaning initiatives. By maximizing resources with her galvanizing leadership and influence, she garnered Coast Guard-wide recognition for a strategically developed, intel-driven operation aimed at combating unsafe operation of illegal passenger vessels on the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. Briefed at the highest levels of the organization, her concept of operations which utilized resources from multiple local law enforcement agencies, now serves as the “gold standard” for the entire Coast Guard. Exhibiting unparalleled leadership and superior vision, she championed the implementation of dramatic maritime safety and security improvements on the heavily congested Chicago River. Striking an optimum balance between effective safety and the facilitation of commerce, she orchestrated unprecedented outreach with the Chicago Harbor Safety Committee and other first responders to produce and release a short film, “Safe Boating in Chicago,” to reinforce safe boating on one of the most frequently transited waterways on the Great Lakes.

Cmdr. Zeita Merchant assists with offloading supplies during the 2017 hurricane season.

Most impressively, Merchant is one of only 30 designated type 1 incident commanders currently active within the Coast Guard. Naturally, she is a highly demanded expert sought to cultivate the next generation of responders, particularly during times such as those witnessed during the unprecedented 2017 hurricane season. Deployed as an incident commander to Port Arthur, Texas, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Merchant’s leadership empowered rapid triages and unity of effort that help reconstitute one of the largest petrochemical port complexes in the world. Shortly thereafter, she was requested in Puerto Rico to exercise her unique talents towards guiding over 750 Coast Guard responders to facilitate order and orchestrate relief in the devastating wake of Hurricane Maria.

In addition to her impressive proficiency as an operator, Merchant makes it a point to lead by giving back to the community from which she came. She currently serves as a “boots on the ground” board member of BUILD Chicago, a non-profit organization focusing on gang intervention in some of Chicago’s neighborhoods, including the neighborhood in which she was born. Further, she also serves as a mentor to Coast Guardsmen of all ranks stationed around the world. Ironically and fittingly, Merchant was mentoring cadets at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, as part of the Eclipse Program when she received the call from the Coast Guard’s Commandant with news that she was selected as the 2017 Jarvis award recipient.


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