Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class David Weydert.
As family, friends, coworkers and students gathered on the gun deck of Taylor Hall at Coast Guard Training Center Yorktown, many did not know that they’d be witnessing Coast Guard history. While three people were advanced to master chief petty officer that day, the advancement of Jennifer Lowden was particularly notable.
Standing on the same grounds where she was a 25-year-old machinery technician student, Lowden became the first female to join the highest ranks in her profession when her husband and her mother impressed the master chief insignia onto her shirt collar.
However, the rank has yet to sink in for the newly pinned master chief.
“People say good morning master chief, and I’m looking for the person behind me,” said Lowden with a laugh and a rueful shake of her head. “It’s been a long trek to get up to this point, lots of blood, sweat and tears.”
Lowden began her Coast Guard career in the summer of ’93 at the age of 24 because she wanted to do something different with her life.
“When I came in, I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a job,” said Lowden. “The first unit I was on out of boot camp was a [large ship], and they put me in the engineering department.”
Stationed aboard Coast Guard Cutter Sherman, Lowden was assigned to work with the crew in main propulsion, and was the only enlisted female in the engineering division.
“We did a center section [overhaul] of one of the engines and I was up to my elbows in grease and grime,” said Lowden. “I loved every minute of it.”
It was during this engine overhaul that Lowden found her calling and made her decision to become a machinery technician.
She signed up for machinery technician school and waited the six months before she transferred across the country to Training Center Yorktown. At the school, Lowden was the only female in her class and worked hard to prove herself as capable as her male classmates.
When she completed school, she received her crows and became a petty officer third class.
Her first unit was Coast Guard Station Humbolt Bay, a surf station on the northern California coast. She worked aboard the station’s response boats and qualified quickly as crewman and boat engineer. During her four-year tour, Lowden received the Coast Guard Enlisted Person of the Quarter award from the Navy League, advanced in rank to second class petty officer and received the Coast Guard Person of the Year award from the American Legion.
Lowden’s next unit took her away from the small boat community and placed her aboard the 420-foot Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a polar icebreaker. When Lowden reported, the Healy was still in the shipyards in Avondale, La., slated for its maiden voyage to a homeport in Seattle.
Laughter escaped her as she spoke about some of the friendly rivalry between the deck and engineering departments aboard Healy during her tour.
“The deck force guys really loved to break the ice off the handrails at seven o’clock in the morning, especially when they were doing it right outside the room of the individual they knew had mid-watch the night before,” said Lowden. “They would be there with a baseball bat whacking the ice off the handrail. So, we [the engineers] would just shut off the hot water to their showers – while they were in the shower.”
Lowden’s time aboard the Healy provided her many lasting memories and strong friendships.
“It was fun,” said Lowden. “I loved the camaraderie. We were basically a family -dysfunctional, but a family.”
From the Healy, Lowden returned to the surf at the National Motor Lifeboat School in Ilwaco, Wash., where she worked as a standardization inspector and as an instructor. It was during this time Lowden advanced to chief petty officer and requested orders to attend the month-long Chief Petty Officers Academy in Alameda, Calif.
While attending the academy, Lowden met Master Chief Petty Officer Patricia Stolle, the first woman in Coast Guard history to achieve the rank of master chief while on active duty. While talking with Stolle, Lowden was encouraged to continue in the enlisted ranks rather than pursue a chief warrant officer career, a goal Lowden was previously striving toward.
Upon leaving the academy, Lowden received orders to the Coast Guard Cutter Fir, homeported in Astoria, Ore., across the Columbia River from her previous unit in Ilwaco. While aboard the Fir, Lowden became the unit’s command chief and eventually received her first star as she advanced to senior chief petty officer.
“As a female and the command chief, I was able to work with the small number of women on the cutter and provided a better perspective of females as a senior leader,” said Lowden.
Lowden’s next transfer brought her back full circle, returning her to Coast Guard Training Center Yorktown where she started her career; this time, she was there as the machinery technician school chief.
Lowden said she wants to mold the minds of future students and to inspire other woman interested in the machinery technician rate. Through her actions she hopes to encourage female students into making the Coast Guard a career.
“If someone tells you that you can’t do something because you’re female, prove them wrong,” said Lowden. “I’ve never believed I couldn’t do the same things my male counterparts could simply due to my gender.”
Now, almost 20 years into her career, Lowden is still excited about her future and thankful for the friends and encouragement she garnered along the way.
“If it hadn’t been for the mentorship I ended up having from friends pushing me on, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” said Lowden.
Though Lowden has faced difficulties during her career, she has proven she’s up to the challenge and continues to persevere.
“[Today’s advancement] drives home the point that I have done quite a bit in my last 20 years,” exclaimed Lowden. “If someone had told me back when I came in that I would end up being in for a full twenty [years] and that I would be sitting behind a desk as an E-9, I would have been looking at them going ‘you’re completely out of your mind!’”