Thursday, June 24, 2021

Commander Merle Smith, groundbreaking Coast Guard judge advocate, has died

Commander Merle J. Smith, Jr., USCGR (Ret), died in New London, CT, on June 16, 2021. He was 76 years of age. 

Commander Smith, the son of an Army colonel, was a Coast Guard groundbreaker in at least two respects. He was the first Black graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (Class of 1966) and the first Black officer to command a U.S. warship in close combat operations (at left, receiving the Bronze Star from Assistant Commandant Vice Admiral Thomas R. Sargent III). He was a 1976 graduate of George Washington University Law School, an institution which many Coast Guard judge advocates have attended over the years. In 2006, he served as civilian defense counsel in United States v. Smith, the first general court-martial of a Coast Guard Academy cadet. The Academy later named its Officers Club in Commander Smith's honor.

Commander Smith was one of the Coast Guard's first Black law specialists, as the service's judge advocates were previously called:

After returning from Vietnam, [Commander Smith] served a number of years at Coast Guard Headquarters.  During this period he spent two-and-a-half years on the international affairs staff, attended and graduated law school at George Washington University and served as deputy chief of the Chief Counsel’s Office of Military Justice.  In 1975, he was assigned to the law faculty at the Coast Guard Academy, where he also helped coach football and served as Class Advisor for the Class of 1977.  He was promoted to Commander in 1981 and left active duty in 1984.

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