March is Women’s History Month. In honor of the many contributions women have made to the history of our service, we bring you the stories of the female leaders of today’s Coast Guard. This week, we are highlighting the contributions of Capt. Patricia McFetridge, the first female aviator to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and Chief Gunner’s Mate Kristen Werner, the first female to reach that milestone since 1973 legislation was signed integrating women into active duty.
Written by Chief Warrant Officer Veronica Colbath and Petty Officer 1st Class Mike Lutz
In today’s world it is exceedingly difficult to become the first person to achieve a particular feat. Add trying to make that accomplishment in the oldest continuous seagoing service, in one of the oldest rates, and you have quite a phenomenal achievement.
Breaking down that barrier and creating history is exactly what happened this past Tuesday in a small ceremony at Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, N.J., when Petty Officer 1st Class Kristin Werner accepted her anchors and the title as, the first female chief gunner’s mate, since 1973 legislation was signed integrating women into active duty.
It’s a Coast Guard tradition to ask two people who you admire to remove your old rank and replace it with your new rank. Werner requested this honor be given to Senior Chief Petty Officer Crystal Sparks and Chief Petty Officer John Ruchser who pinned on her anchors, marking Werner’s huge personal accomplishment.
Deciding to become a gunner’s mate was an easy choice for Werner because she knew the rate would allow her to work on mechanical equipment and would give her the opportunity to share her knowledge with a wide variety of personnel through weapons safety training and range training.
“After A-school I wanted an assignment on a 378-foot, high-endurance cutter, because they have the majority of systems that a gunner’s mate can work on and it would give me the experience I needed in my rating,” said Werner.
Gunner’s mates are small weapons specialists that work with everything from pistols, rifles and machine guns to 76mm gun weapons systems. They are responsible for training personnel in the proper handling of weapons, ammunition and pyrotechnics.
“I never touched a weapon before I joined the Coast Guard,” said Werner as she laughed about being from the suburbs. “As a gunner’s mate it’s not all about shooting, that’s only a small part of the job, it’s about maintaining equipment, teaching, trouble shooting and accounting for parts and ammunition.”
In the 15 years Werner has served in the Coast Guard, she has spent seven years underway.
“Being underway is one of the most unique jobs in the world,” said Werner. “I’ve been able to sail around the world with 120 plus of my closest friends and get paid.”
According to Werner unless you’ve done time aboard a cutter it’s hard to understand what it means to spend months at sea with a diverse group of people all sharing the same core values and understanding the role they play at their unit and in the Coast Guard.
“It’s like being in an exclusive fraternity,” said Werner. “When you’re out in the middle of the ocean, you only have each other to rely on. When you pull into foreign ports, you have your shipmates to explore with and the opportunity to experience new things and build new memories, it’s priceless.”
Originally from Seattle, Werner graduated from Coast Guard Recruit Training in December 1995 with Whiskey 147 and is currently serving as a company commander. She graduated company commander school in September 2010, and is currently training her third company, Sierra 184.
“I made the decision to be a company commander when I was here in 1999 attending recruiter school,” said Werner. “We were allowed to shadow a company and I knew that being a company commander would be something I would accomplish in my career.”
Training Center Cape May is where all enlisted Coast Guard members begin their career and take their first small step towards their futures.
“It is very fitting that this ‘first’ was achieved here at the training center where so many careers have begun,” said Capt. William G. Kelly, commanding officer of Training Center Cape May. “The young people that go through here have dreams of graduating from basic training and achieving the highest ranks they can. Today, they have seen a historic first and now they know that whatever they put their minds to can be accomplished.”
“I am extremely honored to be accepting the title of first female gunner’s mate chief petty officer,” said Werner. “It’s a humbling experience to be standing in front of my company getting my anchors. I know that the shipmate’s in my rate work hard to advance and I feel that I was just fortunate to place high on the advancement list this year. I hope one day soon there will be no more female firsts.”
Do you know a Shipmate that has done something great for the service, the missions or the public? Please submit your nominations using the “Submit Ideas” link on the right.