Members of the 2023–24 class of the Robert and Marion Oster National Security Affairs Fellows Program are participating in an interview series in which they discuss their career experience, how they plan to spend the academic year, and their mentoring of Stanford undergraduate students. They also reflect on leadership lessons they learned in service to the nation.
Today, we speak to Commander KR Reinhold, an MH-65E helicopter pilot in the US Coast Guard.
Why did you join the US Coast Guard?
Following the tragic events of 9/11, I felt a calling to serve my country. My father spent some time in the Marine Corps Reserve during Vietnam, and his father had served in India and Southeast Asia during World War II. The military was a career I respected but had never thought seriously about until 9/11. I was close to completing my undergraduate studies and had been hired as a marine research associate for a nonprofit in the Bahamas. While out of the country and watching the nation attempt to heal from afar, my patriotism and desire for public service continued to swell. Over a period of a couple of weeks in spring 2002, I noticed US Coast Guard helicopters flying over our research island. Turns out they were conducting joint counternarcotics patrols with the Bahamians, stopping cartels from smuggling drugs and bad actors into our country. It looked like an exciting and fulfilling way to make a difference. I recognized it as a sign and applied to the Coast Guard Officer Candidate School right away. Looking back, I was probably too all-in. I prematurely resigned from my research job and moved back to Arizona only to find out it would be a year-long wait before I was accepted. But it was worth it and one of the best decisions I ever made. From day one, public service felt special. The coast guard saves lives, defends our freedom and security, protects our economic vitality, and values people. I have loved doing those things on a daily basis. Even better, I eventually became a helicopter pilot and patrolled those same waters in the Bahamas just six years later.
Will you tell us about your educational background?
One of our family traditions on my mother’s side is attending the University of Arizona—it is multigenerational for us and the only school I ever dreamed of graduating from. After a year as a Rotary International exchange student in Venezuela, I kicked off my undergraduate career as an Arizona Wildcat to continue the tradition. I earned two bachelor’s degrees there—ecology and evolutionary biology, and Spanish. Years later, as a lieutenant commander in the coast guard, I was selected for a mid-career graduate program and completed a master in public policy at Princeton University in 2015.
Will you tell us about your career arc?
I have unabashedly parlayed circumstance and good fortune into a memorable twenty-year career. I think back to my start in the coast guard in 2003 and am amazed with both how fast it has gone by and the experiences I have had. The people I have met along the way are undoubtedly the best part—we have such special people in the coast guard, and I am proud to have served our nation alongside them. It has been incredibly fulfilling.
Upon graduating from Officer Candidate School in New London, Connecticut, and considering my biology background, I expected to specialize in the marine environmental protection mission. However, during my first tour in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I got a taste of naval aviation and jumped in feet first. I was selected to attend naval flight training in Pensacola, Florida, and earned my “Wings of Gold” in 2006. I have been a naval aviator for seventeen years now—specifically a MH-65E Dolphin helicopter pilot—and have been assigned to a variety of operational positions throughout the Western Hemisphere. I have protected the airspace around both the national capital region and POTUS during his travel, interdicted drug smugglers in complete darkness hundreds of miles offshore, and rescued dozens of lives from perilous conditions at sea. My family and I have been stationed in Puerto Rico, all over Florida, New Jersey, Washington, DC, and now here in California, with multiple operational deployments to the Caribbean and eastern Pacific Ocean.
Prior to joining Hoover, I completed an assignment as the chief of operations at the coast guard’s Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) in Jacksonville, Florida. There, I oversaw all flight operations for the nation’s premier airborne use-of-force and counternarcotics aviation unit, responsible for $2 billion in annual maritime drug interdictions. Before that, I served as press assistant to the twenty-sixth commandant of the US Coast Guard. In this capacity, I managed all strategic communications and national media engagements for the four-star service chief. From 2015 to 2018, I was assigned as the coast guard’s deputy liaison to the US House of Representatives, where we advocated for coast guard budget priorities, capital asset acquisitions, and legislative authorities. It has been quite the adventure, and my family and I are looking forward to what’s next after our time at Hoover.
Will you tell us how you heard about the Hoover National Security Affairs Fellowship and how you hope to make the most out of this academic year?
The Hoover Institution is well regarded by the coast guard. All my predecessors in the National Security Affairs Fellowship have served as great ambassadors for Hoover upon their return to the service. My peers and the younger generations recognize it as an outstanding opportunity to grow as a strategist and leader, especially as previous fellows have gone on to important positions, including flag officer. Selection for the Hoover Institution within my service is extremely competitive, so I am honored to have been chosen. For that reason, this year I am embracing every possible opportunity here. My family and I live close to the Stanford campus, so my kids are attending Stanford sporting events, playing in the campus fountains, and biking up and down the Oval and the Main Quad. The daily experience of learning from the Hoover fellows and staff, attending seminars, reading, thinking, writing, and reflecting is already paying dividends toward my preparation for future service as a leader. My research interests include the United States’ efforts in countering and competing against China in the maritime environment, particularly in gray-zone activities; illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUUF); protecting island nations’ sovereign rights; and illicit narcotics smuggling.
Part of the National Security Affairs Fellowship has been teaching and mentoring Stanford University undergraduate students. Could you tell us about your experience mentoring them?
The mentorship program with Stanford undergrads has been the highlight of my year thus far. Each National Security Affairs Fellow is assigned three mentees from an undergrad public policy class of thirty students, which the ten fellows help teach. Our mentees come from various backgrounds and specialties, many of them STEM-related—the common thread is their interest in future public service. Our students are impressive and a fantastic representation of the Stanford community. They are inquisitive and eager to carve out their paths in life. It has been very fulfilling to answer their questions about careers and family, engage in global affairs discussions, challenge them to look through various perspectives, build trust within the group, and plan out-of-the-box activities to widen their aperture to the world around them. I have expressed to my mentees that I am a resource to them for as long as they need it, even after this year, as what I hope will become part of a thriving network of mentors they cultivate over time. I am thankful to my own network for helping me achieve career success, and it is so important to pay it forward.
What does leadership mean to you?
Leadership to me is about connection and support. Everyone has unique interests, desires, and objectives for fulfillment. As leaders, it is our job to discover individuals’ stories, forge common bonds, and create buy-in for the job at hand. I fully believe that if we equip, train, understand, and support our people, the mission will take care of itself. Leadership requires a healthy amount of faith and confidence. If we teach our people well and instill confidence in their abilities, we should demonstrate faith in their performance in the moment. Providing that type of trust and support is what inspires others to achieve their optimal selves.