This month’s commemoration of women’s history highlights the achievements of women in the Coast Guard and celebrates their qualities of character, courage and commitment. In this four-part series, we will be introducing you to women who are making an impact in the Coast Guard. Each of these dedicated officer and enlisted leaders embodies this year’s theme that has served her well in her career.
Written by Lisa Novak.
When Lt. La’Shanda Holmes was a college student passing out information on community service opportunities during a career fair, she had no idea that moment was going to be the start of her career as a helicopter pilot.
“At the end of the fair, I went over to thank the recruiter at the Coast Guard table for coming to Spelman. I didn’t know anything about the Coast Guard at that point,” she recalled. “I was a part of the Bonner Scholarship program, which was heavily community service-based, therefore when I learned more about the Coast Guard, it piqued my interest because its missions paralleled my idea of what it meant to serve the public. On top of that, I was offered a full scholarship for my last two years of school which completely sold me and I started the enlistment process that day.”
She was a psychology major at Spelman College but wasn’t sure what she wanted to do in the Coast Guard. She spent the time between graduation and going to Officer Candidate School exploring what the sea-going service was all about. Ship and cargo inspections in Miami, work at Station Long Island and going to sea on the cutter Midgett created a love of being on the water and she enjoyed the camaraderie of the boat crew. She was leaning toward becoming a ship-driver until the cutter’s operations officer suggested aviation may be the place for her in the service. He told her to contact Lt. Jeanine McIntosh-Menze, who was the first African-American female aviator in the service. Holmes reached out to McIntosh-Menze and spent time at Air Station Clearwater with her before attending Officer Candidate School.
“She was as amazing as I thought she would be,” said Holmes. “She took me up in a C-130 and her husband flies Jayhawks, so he took me up as well, and not only did I find flying to be the coolest thing I’ve ever done, but hovering in a helicopter is just pure magic!”
Holmes said she had never heard of a woman pilot, let alone an African-American or other minority pilot, so she was inspired by McIntosh-Menze and brushed up on her math and science and headed toward aviation as a career field.
“Jeanine just seemed like she had it all. She just inspired me to take that risk in something that I’d never thought about in my life,” said Holmes. “I never looked at a plane and thought I wanted to fly. It was like a light bulb went off and shifted my way of thinking of what was possible for me, just by seeing her,” she said.
Holmes’ first station was Air Station Los Angeles, which at the time had six female pilots, the most of any air station in the Coast Guard.
“It was good for me because I had a lot of support from them,” said Homes. “Some places where there is only one woman, when you go through challenges it can be harder to deal with without the support of someone who looks like you and who has already been through similar struggles. On top of that, the operations officer was female, too. It was a great start for me,” she said.
“I think it’s important for a lot of women and minorities in the service to have that support and not feel so alone and isolated, especially at your first duty station, when you don’t know the ropes. I was very blessed to come in with so many amazing women to latch onto,” said Holmes.
She said her first day as aircraft commander was a stand-out day she would never forget. The morning of her duty day weather was a quarter mile vis and one hundred foot ceilings…much too low to fly in, so she delayed the flight until noon. After briefing for the noon training flight, the SAR alarm rang: “Now put the ready helo on the line for an unconscious diver off of Santa Barbara Island, now put the ready helo on the line.”
“Although excited I thought, really? My first real day on the job and the alarm is going off!” she laughed.
She sent the copilot out to start up the aircraft and soon the entire crew was out to help a diver in distress. A Coast Guard boat was nearby and Holmes called it over to assist with the trail line delivery to the diver’s boat, which had a bunch of people watching and photographing the entire scene.
“It was my first live hoist and we had to take the diver to the UCLA hospital pad, which I had also never done before. It was a day full of firsts,” she said. “We got back to the air station and began high-fiving each other because it couldn’t have gone better. The whole crew was so excited and ready to go out for another awesome case.”
The day improved just a little bit more because someone on the Coast Guard boat had taken a photo of Holmes’s helicopter and crew in action and sent it to her. She keeps it on her computer as her screen-saver at work.
“It’s amazing. I don’t know of anybody who has photos of their first case, their first duty day, their first rescue. I am a lucky girl,” she said.
Holmes is pleased at the direction her career has gone, albeit an unexpected one. She encourages any young woman considering the Coast Guard for a career path to go for it.
“I’m a big believer that we’re on this planet for each other and to serve one another, and I have the opportunity to do that every day I go to work. No other service’s missions compare to those of the United States Coast Guard. You go out and rescue three people from the water because their boat has sunk, and you turn around in your seat and see the relief on their faces and you know you’re taking them back to their families — nothing is better than that. And to know how much of a team effort it is, from your crew, to the maintainers, to the supply and support staff, a mission cannot be successfully and safely executed without every member on the job. We all make it possible together,” she said.
Holmes will transfer to Air Station Atlantic City, N.J., later this year.
Born in Plainfield, NJ and raised in Fayetteville, N.C., Lt. La’Shanda R. Holmes joined the Coast Guard in 2005 through the College Student Pre-Commisioning Initiative (CSPI) Scholarship Program.
With more than eight years in the Coast Guard, more than 1,000 hours of flying the MH-65 Dolphin helicopter, and just recently upgrading to aircraft commander, Holmes has demonstrated exceptional performance in the areas of academics, professionalism, and community service.