This week’s Guardian of the Week post comes to us from Naval Air Station Whiting Field where history was made as Lieutenant (junior grade) La’Shanda Holmes had her wings pinned on and became the first African American female helicopter pilot in the United States Coast Guard.
Post written by Jay Cope, NAS Whiting Field Public Affairs
Perseverance, dedication, grit, a desire to excel – these are all traits desired in a student aviator. Training in the aviation program for the maritime services is intentionally difficult to stress and push the students beyond their comfort zones so they can meet the hardships their service will entail. However, when that prospective pilot is slated to become a barrier breaker as well, those traits are not just desired, but necessary.
That Lt. j.g. La’Shanda Holmes had those traits was never in doubt. The humble, soft-spoken young woman had faced trials growing up in North Carolina that tested and tempered her desire to excel. When she walked across the stage April 9th to receive her wings as the first African-American female helicopter pilot in the U.S. Coast Guard, it was simply the next chapter of a proud story.
All Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard initial helicopter pilot training is performed at Naval Air Station Whiting Field through one of six squadrons attached to Training Air Wing FIVE. Holmes was attached to Helicopter Training Squadron EIGHTEEN for the final portion of her nearly two-year aviation training pipeline. She knew at the outset that she was the first black female to begin the training. While she admits to some periodic concerns about completing the program, there were really never any doubts harbored by the squadron commanding officer, Commander Mark Murray.
“I knew she would be successful. She had already overcome far greater challenges than flight school. I had the opportunity to do a familiarization flight with her, and where most folks might get a little frustrated, she drank it all in. She was eager to improve and I had no doubts she would do well,” he said.
Given her childhood, that might not normally be a safe assumption, but for Holmes, the hurdles she faced growing up drove her to try all that much harder.
“I was used to people telling me what I couldn’t do. We moved around a lot, and I think it fueled my ambition to live better and work harder. It just gave me more motivation to succeed,” she said.
Her trials started young. Holmes was just two when her mother committed suicide. She was adopted a short time later, but after her adoptive mother remarried, she states that she and her younger brother were placed in foster care due to abuse and were separated. She went through several homes until she landed with Linda and Edward Brown at 17. She still calls them her parents and they provided some necessary stability for her life.
Her hard work paid off even then graduating magna cum laude from high school and earning admission to Spelman College. Two years into her education there, she was assisting with a community service booth during a career day. Directly across from her was a Coast Guard recruiting booth. She wandered over after the event to speak with him conversation with Senior Chief Dexter Lindsey who inspired her to think about serving.
She applied for and was accepted into the College Student Pre-commissioning Initiative which financially enabled her to finish school. Prior to attending Officer Candidate School, she served on a Coast Guard cutter as an officer candidate and while near the bridge stuck up a conversation with the operations officer who advised her to consider aviation. It was then that she learned the Coast Guard had only one other black, female pilot, Lt. Jeanine Menze.
“It sounded challenging, but something I was up for,” Holmes said.
At that time, Menze was stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater flying the C-130 Hercules. Holmes was granted an opportunity to be temporarily stationed at Clearwater to learn about the aviation program, but it wasn’t until she was in the back seat of an SH-60 helicopter being flown by George Menze, Lt. Menze’s husband, that her future intentions kicked into place.
“We did hovering and flying low over the water. I was like a little kid. It was like nothing I had ever done or seen before. It was awesome,” she said. “Everyone in the aviation community was so close. There was a real sense of camaraderie that I wanted to be a part of. ”
That camaraderie certainly extends to the friendship between Menze and Holmes. They both share the same exuberant joy in flying and a similar appreciation for service in the Coast Guard. Menze called joining the Coast Guard the best decision she ever made, and sees a kindred spirit in Holmes.
“She’s so motivated to do well,” she said. “You put a thought into her head and she just runs with it. You tell her to work hard and study hard, and she goes and does it….I really expect big things from her.”
Menze is still a mentor to Holmes. She encouraged her through the process, gave her pep talks and let her know what to expect through flight training. The relationship is so close that Holmes asked Menze to present her pin during the winging ceremony.
She agreed and even presented Holmes with the first set of wings she received in 2005, following the ceremony. Menze thought of it as a memento to let her see that “dreams do come true.”
The winging ceremony was the culmination of nearly two years of hard work, and a lifetime of overcoming obstacles. For Holmes, having Menze there to share the occasion meant a great deal.
“It was a really emotional experience. Both of our eyes were watering and she asked me ‘Are you ready for this?’ I can’t think of a more awesome moment in my life.”
Holmes says things haven’t really hit home with her yet. For that day, she was just one of 18 new aviators. At her next duty station, she wants to be just another rookie pilot. She knows she is breaking a barrier, but doesn’t seem to think it really says anything special about her. She is transferring to Coast Guard Air Station Los Angeles and wants the same things any young officer wants.
“I know I’m the first, but nothing has sunk in yet. People may have expectations, but for me, mainly, it is about taking on responsibility and knowing I have something to prove [as a pilot]. I just want to keep flying well and working hard to make my community, family and sisters proud of me.”
This story was reprinted with permission from Whiting Tower, the newsletter of Naval Air Station Whiting Field. Click here for the the latest issue of Whiting Tower including LTjg Holmes’ story.
Do you know someone in the Coast Guard that has done something great for the service, the missions or the public? Please submit your nominations for Guardian of the Week using the submit button at the top of the page.