Strong Leader Balances Empathy, Wellness, and Mission
Coast Guard Seaman Josalyn Brown
As Petty Officer 2nd Class Reilly Burrus sat down, there was an
air of nervousness around her. With her hair pulled back into what
her recruits would call her signature bun, she seems shy and
uncertain of how this interview would go, but as soon as the first
question was asked, she lit up with excitement and intensity. She
had a lot to say.
Burrus is a maritime enforcement specialist
in the U.S. Coast Guard and currently a company commander at
Training Center Cape May. She has been all over the country, from
the Coast Guard Police Department in Kodiak, Alaska to Sector
Delaware Bay, so she felt the experiences she had gathered over her
career, combined with her years of service gave her a good sense of
what leadership looked like.
U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Reilly Burrus
stands in front of Sexton Hall with recruits behind her at Training Center Cape May
in New Jersey on June 11, 2020. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by
Seaman Josalyn Brown)
"I believe just being a maritime enforcement specialist
puts you in a leadership role; leading law enforcement teams for
vessel boardings and other types of missions," said Burrus.
"A good leader is out on the front line
performing tasks with their team. If your team is struggling, then
you are struggling, but you are the person that needs to come up
with the solutions to mitigate the issue," she said passionately.
She made it very clear that her recruits were her biggest
priority in the ever-changing COVID environment.
"I had a
suitcase packed in my office in case something was to happen so I
could stay with them,” Burrus said. “I didn't want them to think
that if a case did show up their company commanders would just
disappear. I was prepared to stay with them for the entire time they
She had two assistant company commanders, Petty
Officer 1st Class Kevin Aulph and Petty Officer 2nd Class Ava
Toliver, helping her with training Oscar 198.
explained how she relied heavily on her assistants while training
"If I didn't have the team that I had, it would
have been a lot more of a struggle. We had a very seasoned team,"
Aulph is on his second tour as a company commander
and has lead multiple companies before, and he recognized the
dedication Burrus had towards making the company as prepared as
"She was approachable by recruits in more urgent
situations,” said Aulph. “I believe she was sterner with her
recruits than most. She was a real firecracker most days and was
constantly ensuring that Oscar 198 would meet the high standards of
our service. I believe her intensity was driven by the need to
produce the high-quality non-rates the Coast Guard has come to
expect from Training Center Cape May."
support from not only her assistant CCs, but also her chain of
command. Senior Chief Petty Officer Michael Lynch, a section
commander at the Training Center, expressed his pride in her work.
"Having Petty Officer Burrus on the regiment has brought a
different style of leadership that we needed. She relates to the
recruits on a level that works with them, especially in the later
weeks of training where she can show them what she's done in the
Coast Guard and how she uses this job as a springboard to further
her career," said Lynch.
Chief Petty Officer David Knapp, the
assistant battalion commander at the Training Center, also offered
his opinion of Burrus.
"She is an honest and transparent
leader who compassionately took care of her people and fought to
make sure they got the training they needed to be ready for the
Coast Guard,” Knapp said.
Knapp was one of the many leaders
that Burrus looked up to for leadership and sought out for guidance.
"Chief Knapp was my second-hand man. When I was stressed, he was
the person I called and he would help me out,” said Burrus.
Burrus spent many long hours in the office trying to iron out a way
to prepare her recruits for the demands of the fleet, while also
getting their pre-requisites for graduation completed. The changes
COVID-19 wrought challenged the company commanders in ways they
never experienced before.
"Honestly, I don't think anything
could have prepared us for this current environment, but CC school
was very good training and it has made me into the company commander
I am today,” said Burrus.
Many minute details go into
training a recruit, from teaching them required knowledge to
instilling the self-discipline required to be successful in the
fleet. Many of the CCs at the Training Center have expressed
differing opinions about how to train recruits on such an expedited
timeline. Burrus however had a slightly different take on the
“At first, it bothered me a little bit. Being a
company commander for three years and then seeing all of these crazy
changes happening, made me feel like I wasn't performing to the
extent that I should have been for the sake of my recruits,” said
Burrus. “Sometimes my recruits would see me struggle a little bit,
but I didn't want to hide the struggle from them, because we're not
perfect. I told them that this is a hard time not only them, but for
us as well. All I could do was tell them that everything was going
to be okay."
COVID-19 changed the way the training center
trained its recruits. This change added an overwhelming amount of
stress for the training staff. However, CCs like Burrus were able to
complete the mission. Her team graduated 107 recruits with Oscar 198
and those graduates are now completing critical frontline Coast
Guard missions across the country and around the world.
"Typically a lead company commander is an E-6 or E-7. It's nice to
see that the command trusts their people, their varying leadership
styles, and the judgment of those E-5s to lead a company. Their
support made me realize that I am a good leader," Burrus said with
Now that Burrus has endured and overcome this wildly
chaotic episode in her career, she can forever use it to help steady
the service and continue to grow herself as a leader ... wherever
she may go.
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