SAN PEDRO, Calif. — The Coast Guard’s top officer laid out a “dedicated campaign” on Thursday to improve diversity in a military branch that has long struggled to recruit women and minorities, weeks after the service was shaken by the arrest of a lieutenant and self-described white nationalist accused of plotting terrorist attacks from its headquarters.
Adm. Karl L. Schultz, speaking in his first State of the Coast Guard address since being named the service’s 26th commandant in June, later acknowledged that the goal to make the service more inclusive would be challenging after the Defense Department issued a policy that will force future transgender members of the military to identify as their biological sex.
“We’re going to treat everybody with respect. There’s some changes that come with this policy, and we’re bound to follow that policy,” Admiral Schultz said at the Coast Guard Los Angeles-Long Beach Base before scores of Coast Guard and California law enforcement officials. “There’s some that feel, ‘Hey, you’re breaking ranks with the transgender community.’ I would say, we’ll see how it goes.”
He also faces a major challenge on other diversity fronts: Out of its 41,159 members, just 14.6 percent are women, 13.7 percent are Hispanic and 5.9 percent are African-American.
Admiral Schultz dedicated much of his speech to emphasizing the need to improve retention of women and minorities, and highlighting steps to do so.
The Coast Guard will commission a study to explore improving retention among “underrepresented minorities” and is planning next week to release data from a similar study on the retention of women, he said. It will also use staffing from reserves to support new parents wanting to go on leave and to ease restrictions on recruits with tattoos. Admiral Schultz also said he hoped emerging opportunities in cybersecurity would attract new, younger talent.
“These actions are the first steps in a dedicated campaign to identify barriers to inclusion, and to help frame solutions that challenge the status quo,” Admiral Schultz said. “They are small ripples that will lead to a groundswell of cultural change.”
The Coast Guard has suffered in part because of an image that its work is limited to finding those lost at sea and towing ships, when in reality the organization operates as a military and law enforcement service whose members travel throughout the world as part of the intelligence community. It also struggled during the latest government shutdown, when its service members went weeks without a paycheck. Admiral Schultz said he expected the Coast Guard to fully recover by June 1.
The transgender policy has also created a hurdle — one that Admiral Schultz’s predecessor, Paul F. Zukunft, challenged in 2017, when the former commandant said he would continue to support transgender members of the Coast Guard the same day President Trump tweeted about barring them from the military.
Lawyers for transgender service members have said the policy, which the Supreme Court allowed to take effect this year while litigation continues, amounts to a ban on transgender people. Defense Department officials have rejected that assertion, saying transgender service members can still serve.
Although the Coast Guard is under the Department of Homeland Security, not the Defense Department, the master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard, Jason M. Vanderhaden, said it was important that the organization follow a policy consistent with other arms of the military so it could deploy its members to assist those branches without any restrictions.
After Admiral Schultz’s speech, he gave Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, a tour of the Forrest Rednour, a Coast Guard cutter typically used to intercept drug and human traffickers.
Ms. Murkowski said she looked forward to results of the women’s retention study and was looking to see if there were similar struggles in other branches of the military.
“The message of an all-inclusive Coast Guard, I think it’s important for the Coast Guard and all members of our armed service,” Ms. Murkowski said.
The speech came weeks after the arrest of the Coast Guard lieutenant and self-described white nationalist in Maryland on gun and drug charges. Prosecutors said the suspect, Lt. Christopher Paul Hasson, plotted to kill prominent journalists and Democratic politicians, as well as what he called, “leftists in general.”
In his first public comments about the arrest, Admiral Schultz asked the public to judge the 228-year-old organization “on the fiber of our character.”
“It tells us you need to be alert and aware in our workplaces,” Admiral Schultz told reporters before the speech. “People can have a work life and an outside-work life. So it heightens all our awareness about keeping our senses being intrusive leaders.”