Located on the northeast tip of Prince William Sound, Alaska, is a city with an average annual snowfall of 30 feet – the most of any community at sea level in North America. This city is Valdez and is home to more than 100 active duty Coast Guard members.
Lt. Cmdr. Erin Williams currently serves as the executive officer of Marine Safety Unit Valdez and knows all too well the impact Valdez’ distant, rugged environment has on performing the mission.
The remote area servicemembers and their families live make performing their daily missions incredibly tough; the ferry could stop running, cargo shipments could become delayed and flights could stop at any moment.
But despite being hours away from the nearest major city and relentlessly facing Alaska’s extreme weather, Williams maintains her unit’s ability to perform their mission by her leadership philosophy: people, professionalism, preparedness.
“You can achieve any objective if you focus on those three things,” said Williams. “But it all begins with looking out for your people. If I’m relying on someone to complete a mission and they are distracted it is not going to be successful, regardless of their experience.”
Her philosophy wasn’t just a mantra but became a way of life for those stationed in Valdez as Williams championed Coast Guard Forces Valdez. This effort united six separate commands responsible for communications, logistics and joint operations.
Alongside the more than 100 active duty Coast Guard members are more than 300 total dependents in Valdez alone. Her innovative concept is paying huge dividends in supporting these servicemembers and their families.
Partnering with the local Coast Guard family association and the district’s work-life staff, Williams found volunteer spouses and facilitated their in-home childcare certifications. This created safe, affordable childcare where before there was none. Her efforts also provided jobs and supplemental income for Coast Guard spouses and the childcare service are now utilized by several families.
Also part of the new construct, and in recognizing the hardships imposed by living more than six hours from a major city, Williams led efforts to establish a satellite Coast Guard Exchange in Valdez. One of only two in the entire service, the exchange has provided a vital service to the Coast guard community – providing members with necessary uniform items and small goods – and offered some relief from the high cost of living in Alaska.
Most recently, the strength of Forces Valdez was tested with a massive snowfall. The town faced a total of 400 inches of snow on the ground and area units went “all stop” to support the entire town’s snow removal.
The efforts of Forces Valdez didn’t quite move mountains, but the servicemembers did remove close to 52 million pounds of snow.
The ties that Williams created with Forces Valdez were formidable; so much so that Williams recalls members from her unit coming in voluntarily during the snowstorm to aid those who still needed help.
“You don’t have to even have to call people in,” said Williams. “You know where you live is isolated so you depend on each other.”
Valdez may be a small town, but its people have a big heart. Due to leaders like Williams, as she puts people first, Valdez remains always ready – whether it be to respond to a search and rescue case or the wrath of Mother Nature in the form of 400 inches of snow.