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Leading with Character: Proud to Serve

The Fourth of July—Independence Day—is rapidly approaching. Last weekend I hung patriotic bunting from my deck railings and put out my American flag. It causes me to reflect that as a citizen of this great Nation, I’m part of something far bigger than myself. I felt the same way about my 40 years in uniform with the US Coast Guard. I was proud to serve, and now that I’m retired, I’m proud of those members of the “long blue line” of Coast Guard men and women who continue to serve.

I’m also proud of the Coast Guard women on whose shoulders I stood—those who boldly paved the way by signing up to serve in the women’s reserve during World War II. Women reserves were called SPARs for the Service’s motto, “Semper Paratus, Always Ready.” They performed duties on the home front while men shipped off to war.

I’m most inspired by one remarkable SPAR: Captain Dorothy Stratton. Captain Stratton started out in the Navy Reserve as a WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). Noticing the Coast Guard didn’t have a women’s reserve she advocated for one. Captain Stratton helped establish it and transferred in to become the first director of the SPARS. What a role model! In addition to her accomplished military service:

  • She was awarded her PhD in education from Columbia University and served as the first full-time Dean of Women at Perdue University.
  • She served as executive director of the Girl Scouts of America.
  • In her memory, the CG named its third 418-foot National Security Cutter the Stratton.

A generation later, I entered the Coast Guard Academy in 1978 with the third class to include women. There were only 5% women in the corps of 1,000 cadets. Yes, it was hard. We started with 30 women in my class and four years later, just 10 of us graduated. We were often isolated and alone. There were some men who didn’t think we belonged, but they were in the minority. I learned I could choose to not be offended or demoralized by what others said or did. I couldn’t control my environment, but I had power over my own thoughts and emotions. Instead of letting them get to me, I chose to prove them wrong. I drew upon my core values – hard work and perseverance – and made it through those four years as one of the first women to earn my commission as an officer.

When the Coast Guard, along with the other armed forces, admitted women to active duty decades ago, the Service didn’t impose any operational restrictions as did the other branches. Women in the Coast Guard could serve on the front lines at sea and in the air. I was drawn by the Service’s exciting seagoing missions—search and rescue, icebreaking, law enforcement, waterways safety, homeland security and more—and chose the career path of a cutterman. I proudly served for 12 years at sea and commanded two of the six ships in which I deployed. What an opportunity!

Paying it forward, last week I was pleased to attend the commissioning ceremony for a young Massachusetts Maritime student I’ve mentored. Ensign Jacob Bolles participated in the Coast Guard Auxiliary University Program at Mass Maritime and earned a coveted direct commission into the US Coast Guard. Jacob is a patriot. The commissioning ceremony was held in Rock Harbor, Orleans, MA onboard the famous motor lifeboat 36500—the same lifeboat piloted by US Coast Guard Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernie Webber that fateful night, February 18th, 1952, when the tanker SS PENDLETON broke up off Chatham, MA in a major storm. In what could be considered the most remarkable small boat rescue in Coast Guard history, Petty Officer Webber maneuvered the small, 36-foot lifeboat to daringly rescue 32 men before the ship sank into the deep, dark sea. Congratulations to Ensign Bolles as he takes his place in the “long blue line” and reports to the US Coast Guard Cutter Sequoia (an icebreaking buoy tender) in Port Huron, MI.

The same week we celebrated Ensign Bolles’ commissioning, I spoke with Lieutenant Commander Rory Haley who works in Coast Guard Headquarters as a program reviewer. That was another moment of reflection for me: exactly 30 years ago—an entire generation earlier—I sat in her seat as a program reviewer. What a feeling of pride that a fine young officer of Lieutenant Commander Haley’s caliber has replaced me in the “long blue line” of Coast Guard women and men.

The traditions of selfless service continue across the generations from the time the US Coast Guard had its noble beginning in 1790 as the Revenue Cutter Service, established by President George Washington’s Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton. The mission of the Revenue Cutter Service was to enforce the young nation’s laws, and to serve its people. Nearly 234 years later, today’s modern Coast Guard performs 11 statutory missions in service to the people of the United States.

I believe America is the land of opportunity and there’s no better place to achieve one’s full potential than in the US armed forces. I’m proud of the Coast Guard and urge each service member to demonstrate their pride and commitment by internalizing and actively living the Service’s core values of honor, respect, and devotion to duty. Each person must demonstrate the moral courage to stand up—every day—for what’s right and to step forward to do the right thing, even when it’s hard. The Coast Guard and its members own that responsibility and owe it to each other and to the people of the United States whom they proudly serve.

Look in the mirror. What about your organization makes you proud, and how can you as a leader of character instill pride in your people?

Please join me again in two weeks for more on Leading with Character.

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