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
“I wanted to go to school for free, I’ll admit, and play basketball and softball,” said Cmdr. Laura Collins, with a laugh, about why she chose to attend the Coast Guard Academy. “I think those are good things to admit, though, because we attract 18-year-olds, and I think it’s important to remember what’s important at that age. “I was at the military night at my high school with my dad and he asked what women can or can’t do in the Coast Guard, and the recruiter said that women can do everything, and my dad called my attention to that. So, I guess I need to thank him!”
“When I visited the Coast Guard Academy in New London, I was thrilled by the Coast Guard missions and I really liked being on and near the water. I thought ‘Okay, boats, planes, water — perfect,’” she said.
Collins studied electrical engineering at the academy as planned, but began her career as an officer on a buoy tender followed by a tour aboard the cutter Eagle, instead of continuing directly on to graduate school for chemical engineering, her original plan.
“The ability to do something really cool right after school, getting on a buoy tender, sounded really fun to me to start out life like that,” she said. “It was super hard because of the professional learning curve, but it was fun.” She said she did go to graduate school for chemical engineering, but then she had the opportunity to go to Kodiak and “how could you say no to that?”
Collins served on five cutters as department head and executive officer, most recently on Coast Guard Cutter Stratton in Alameda, and her shore tours included serving as a work-life supervisor and military aide to two Department of Homeland Security deputy secretaries. One year was spent as a fellow at RAND Corporation.
She acknowledges that her career path has swayed from her original plan of working as an engineer.
“One of the things I’m grateful for in the Coast Guard is there have been a lot of opportunities and I’ve always felt there was something else for me to do,” she said. “Why do you stay anywhere? Usually because there is opportunity, because there are things to look forward to.”
As a military aide, Collins managed the deputy secretaries’ calendars, meetings, lunches and generally managed the flow of their days. She also provided input for the deputy secretaries, particularly on personnel and organizational matters, and acted as a conduit to get needed information from the Coast Guard. An unexpected trip came when she was the military aide to Deputy Secretary Michael P. Jackson.
“He wanted to see the southwest border of the country, so we flew from Laredo, Texas, to San Diego in a Customs and Border Protection helicopter,” she said. “We had the doors open and flew low along the entire border. I got to see this beautiful country from the air over the course of several days and stayed in an outpost camp and toured the area with the CBP agents. It was fun — all my work planning lunch hours finally paid off,” she said.
Collins currently works at Coast Guard Headquarters as a strategic analyst in the Enterprise Strategic Management Directorate, working on the future development of the service, and looking as far ahead as 25 years and as close as 10 years.
“We scanned the environment of think tanks, academic institutions, congressional budget reports and others for strategic trends, picked the ones most relevant to the Coast Guard and determined the biggest drivers over the next ten years,” said Collins of her work with her team.
It may seem like an uninteresting job, especially when compared to the operational side of the agency, but Collins said what many people don’t realize is how the jobs that aren’t on the water or in the air often affect what happens out there.
“For policy makers, it’s motivating to know that you might be making an operator’s job better in any format. I’m involved if I write a ten-year strategy and the policy people are making regulations based on that, then the policy people are impacting the operators down the line. I think I’m working to make everything better so the operational job is better and the American public is better served,” she said.
Collins said she has always felt there have been a lot of opportunities for her in the Coast Guard.
“You think one to three years ahead and can’t wait for the next exciting job, and then all of a sudden it’s been 20 years and you don’t know how you did it,” she said. “I’ve always felt there was something else for me to do.”
Having been a work life supervisor, Collins is always willing to be a mentor on that subject.
“Some other officers and I get calls from young women who ask things like ‘How did you have a son and then go back to the cutter?’ There’s no master plan for sure; it’s one of those things where you have to live your life the way you want to live it overall,” she said.
“I’m fortunate to be married to a person who agrees on life’s priorities. It may sound simplistic; we agree on priorities and live our priorities,” said Collins who is married to Cmdr. Brian Glander, a Coast Guard aviator. “Using this, we’ve been able to have operational careers and still have a wonderful family life too. We are not alone; there are others like me and I try to talk about how I made it work and maybe help some of the young officers figure out how to have an exciting Coast Guard career and a fulfilling family life. We want to keep young talent in the service and not send a negative message that you can’t be an operator if you value family. I think there’s a group of us who try to provide that help.”
With the varied career paths Collins has taken in the Coast Guard, she encourages any young woman considering a military career to explore what the service has to offer. She believes everyone has a need to find meaning in their work and that there’s something special about being in the Coast Guard because of the things the service does.
“Whether it’s marking waterways, doing fisheries boardings to ensure that fish stocks are healthy, inspecting vessels or any of our missions, these are jobs that need to be done for our country,” she said. “To me, it’s more meaningful than just working to earn a paycheck. I think our service still attracts and keeps people that have an underlying level of character. I remain amazed that I can sit in what seems to be a normal meeting, and then learn on break that the person sitting next to me rescued several people’s lives at sea. That sort of work takes discipline, character and courage. I like serving with those types of people.”