The 1980s saw the expansion of humanitarian missions by various branches of the Armed Forces of the United States, many of them involving in cooperation with the United States Coast Guard. And in 1986, the Coast Guard’s efforts at stemming waterborne drug-smuggling operations became closely intertwined with the Department of Defense when active-duty Coast Guardsmen were deployed onto Navy ships billets to carry out the enforcement of drug-smuggling laws—a task the Navy was prevented from doing due to the limitations placed on it by the Posse Comitatus Act.
Seeing that members from the different branches of the U.S. Military would likely be working with the Coast Guard in ever-greater numbers, Commandant Paul A. Yost, Jr. authorized the Coast Guard Special Operations Service Ribbon on July 1, 1987 to recognize their participation in non-standard Coast Guard Operations.
Specifically, Coast Guard regulations authorize the award of the ribbon to personnel of the Armed Forces of the U.S. three categories of multi-unit or multi-service operations (training exercises excluded). These include Coast Guard operations that require multiple-agency involvement for the purposes of ensuring national security or carrying out law enforcement; operations or involvement with the governments of foreign countries in all aspects of saving life and property at sea; and operations providing assistance to friendly and/or developing nations.
There is a long list of eligibility requirements that Armed Forces personnel must meet to qualify for the ribbon; these are listed in section 18 of Chapter 5 of COMDTINST M1650.25E, Coast Guard Military Medals and Awards Manual. Also found in the manual is a list of operations approved for the issuance of the ribbon that spans a dozen pages. Among the usual type of operations you would expect to see such—drug-interdiction, overseas contingency support, and environmental disaster relief—are a few that revolve around celebrations and special events, such as Fleet Weeks, celebrations of the Bicentennial of the Coast Guard’s founding, a National Victory Celebration following Operation Desert Storm, a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1987, and World Offshore Powerboat Championship in 1989, to name a few.