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A Ship on the Sea

Women in the U.S. Coast Guard. Photo from thenegrowomeninhistory.blogspot.com, by Petty Officer First Class CC Clayton.

A Coast Guard cutter as large as the Rush’s 378 ft. has to be kept moving or it will settle into the trough of a wave and bob almost uncontrollably. To move forward is a necessity. As Quartermaster (QM) on the Rush, Joan plotted its months-long course from Hawaii to Alaska, working as part of a 160-member crew responding to distress calls and enforcing safety regulations.

from http://www.marsecreview.com/2010/11/anglo-american-support-for-somali-coast-guard-strategic-pragmatism-or-problem/

Nowadays you’ll find Joan hiking with her husband in the California dessert, at work as a Coast Guard civilian, or with the Labrador retriever she’s training to be a service dog. Many aspects help to define Joan. In September she was honored for 22 years of service in the Coast Guard, just one piece of a multi-faceted life.

After working briefly as a watchmaker, Joan was attracted by the Coast Guard’s variety of missions, from search and rescue to ice breaking and drug busts. The service also offered Joan the opportunity to be part of a team. In fact, this facet seemed most poignant to Joan when we spoke. If not for her ongoing civilian employment with the Coast Guard, she probably wouldn’t be retiring now.

Joan primarily found her camaraderie among a large group of men. In fact, 15.7% of active duty CG members are women. Women enter with the knowledge that they are the minority. This is a challenge, especially when many harbor the notion that women join for the men or because they aren’t interested in men at all. This is almost never the case, but it illustrates the scrutiny military women are sometimes under due to their minority status. “Women are noticed more, are remembered more easily, and that can be good or bad,” Joan said. She didn’t allow her gender to define her, but she did adapt. She “tried to become neutral”, keeping her hair short, working not to slip into being “one of the guys.”

Women in the U.S. Coast Guard. Photo from thenegrowomeninhistory.blogspot.com, by Petty Officer First Class CC Clayton.

Joan spoke of calls to port, when the cutter docked and the crew spent leisure time on shore. Civilians struggled to classify her, the woman in a group of military men: she was either one of them or a girlfriend. Self-knowledge of and self-confidence in her own identity was crucial, therefore, but so was the outward portrayal of that identity.

Some female Coast Guard members palled around with their male counterparts, using foul language, encouraging flirtatious attention. Joan avoided this behavior. “It felt like your female persona would follow you back” from port, she said, and the female there didn’t need to be the one standing next to her male companions doing a job. Joan said, “For those women…one bad presentation ruins their chances in the eyes of their bosses. Being a woman in the military is unfairly hard and the system that would allow that is broken.  I think that system is having less influence these days, and that is very good.” Joan made herself a resource for younger female members, illustrating that they could be proud and competent women with their own identities.

Joan never allowed her gender to limit her; instead, she utilized her skills and interests to pursue a variety of avenues in the Coast Guard. She accepted the high-pressure job of planning responses to mayday calls in North Carolina, drawing search plans and launching boats and aircraft from the coast. She married a fellow CG member in 1996 and was the first woman to report on board the cutter Tybee. Joan entered the Reserves two years later and earned a bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Science.

Since September 11, 2001, Joan has been on and off active duty. She worked with the Navy and Intelligence, drilled in the Reserves on the East Coast, and was made a Chief. She now works as a civilian for the Coast Guard and is attending school for certification in mobile application development.

Now upon her retirement, it seems appropriate to acknowledge Joan’s accomplishments. In moments when she might have been overwhelmed by what others wanted her to be or slowed because she stood out, she navigated herself onward. All the while she took time to savor the view, filling her path with joys, strong in her identity and encouraging others to be so, too.

Melinda Clemmer
Melinda traveled short distances with her family but took her first big trip to Europe, as a student ambassador, when she was 13. The sights, sounds, and smells enchanted her, and soon she traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina for a university Spanish immersion program. Since then she has lived in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, California, and Texas and sees every new challenge as a great future story. When not traveling, Melinda’s craving for good stories and amazing travel is satisfied by reading writers’ contributions as Wanderful’s Managing Editor.

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