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Adventure, Equality Draw Women To The Coast Guard

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
August 13, 2011

This summer, Rear Adm. Sandy Stosz took over as superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, becoming the first woman to run a military academy in the nation’s history.

This year’s class is about one-third women, a higher percentage than at any of the other military academies. The Coast Guard is the only military service where woman can do any type of job, and that’s a big appeal for many.

Before the school year starts at the academy, young men and women report in for their first day of “swab summer” — a sort of pre-freshman boot camp. They need to learn how to stay “braced up” — head in, chest up, eyes center. Tough older cadets make sure the newbies get it.

“Sound off!” commands one cadet. “Yes sir!” shouts the 32-member company.

Women are some of the toughest instillers of military discipline on the campus. The cadets march up and down the ranks of new recruits, inspecting each swab. “Get it together, Swab Vallo,” barks one, her face just inches away. “I’m sick of you looking around!”

No Job Is Off-Limits

The Coast Guard academy in New London, Conn., sits beside the Thames River. Except for a few ceremonial guns installed among the red-brick Georgian buildings, this could be any other grassy, wooded New England college.

Cadets earn Bachelor of Science degrees and commit to five years of service as officers upon graduation. Women are expected to do everything that men do here, and they say that’s part of what makes them feel welcome.

“The Coast Guard is the only military service that women can do any type of job, while all the other ones have something specific that women cannot do,” says Casey Fall, a high school senior from Wisconsin visiting the academy. “So I think that’s a real lure for the women to go to.”

Fall heard that if she went into the Navy, she couldn’t be a SEAL or be on the front lines.

Of course, the Coast Guard isn’t a combat force. Its missions run the gamut from illegal migrant interdiction and oil spill cleanup to port security and search-and-rescue.

Cadet Colleen Patton used to be an ocean lifeguard. Pulling people out of the water inspired her to join the Coast Guard. There’s the lure of adventure, too; last year she was in Panama with a law enforcement crew.

“I was on a 378-foot cutter,” Patton says, “and we were working the mission of drugbusting and interdicting migrants. So, it’s pretty serious, and I was only 18 years old.”

A Leader Used To Being Out Front

The Coast Guard is small; less than a tenth of the size of the Army. There’s a familiarity that breeds a sense of family and informality underneath all the straight spines.

Superintendent Stosz’s office is a shipshape affair, however. Only one thing looks a bit out of place on her desk: a bottle of nail polish she quickly stows away before an interview.

Stosz is a youthful 51, with light hair pinned back in a tight bun. Her gold shoulder boards bear two stars. She’s used to being out front; she was the first woman to command a military ship on the Great Lakes. She was also the first female academy graduate to make admiral.

“I just wanted to be another sailor,” Stosz says. “I just wanted to be known for my competency and what I could bring to the Coast Guard — not for my gender. But then I realized I wasn’t going to outrun this.”

She doesn’t feel the need to hide what she considers a nurturing style of leadership. When she was in high school, Stosz says, she was full of innate talent but was also shy and lacked confidence.

“If I hadn’t come into the Coast Guard where they had really stretched me and had me look deep inside and pull out that passion that resides within, I think I might have just been in a lab somewhere wearing a white lab coat, and just being … Sandy,” she says.

Stosz says she loves helping young women find their passion and believes the Coast Guard is one of the best places to do that.

Back out on the academy’s formal parade field, 291 swabs stand ramrod-straight in dark blue work uniforms and visored caps. As this first day of swab summer ends, Stosz administers the oath of office to the new recruits.

Right hands raised, they answer, “We do,” at the end of the oath, and march off smartly as a military band swells. From the steps of Hamilton Hall where Stosz stands, you’d be hard-pressed to pick out the 100 women among them. [Copyright 2011 WSHU Public Radio Group]

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