Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of requirements and analysis at Coast Guard headquarters, for 14 years. She serves as an advisor for the Military Family Advisory Network and a research analyst for Blue Star Families.
Written by Shelley Kimball
Fran DeNinno, the wife of Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft, had a quick learning curve about Coast Guard life when she got married 24 years ago. Her upcoming wedding was scheduled, honeymoon paid for and her fiancé’s ship’s schedule got moved up.
They decided to go on the honeymoon first, then they had the wedding, and three days later, he left to take his place as executive officer of the ship. Soon after he left, the calls started coming in.
“I remember getting calls from different people, the spouses, and they were asking me questions, and I had no idea what they were talking about,” DeNinno said. “Several people wanted me to bring their husbands home. I was wondering, ‘Why are they asking me this?’ I had no idea what was going on.”
When they married, she had been working full time as a pharmaceutical representative. She didn’t quite know how the Coast Guard worked.
“When we first got married, I was working and I didn’t really know anything about the Coast Guard, to be honest with you,” DeNinno said. “I didn’t know anything about ranks, I didn’t know anything about what they did. I was new.”
Fast forward 24 years, her husband recently took over as the commandant of the Coast Guard, and she is the one of three ombudsmen-at-large. And she is still learning through meeting members of the Coast Guard and their families.
“I’m constantly learning, but that’s okay,” DeNinno said.
DeNinno grew up in the Midwest. Her dad was a carpenter, and her mother was a migrant worker. Coast Guard life didn’t really register on her radar.
“I came from a family that didn’t have any money really to speak of,” she said. “We worked hard. They worked hard to raise us. So, I didn’t get raised with all the money and social things. I had to learn everything the hard way. It’s good because it makes me explore more. It makes me always wanting to learn. It makes me realize that we’re all the same. Whether we have a rank, whether we don’t have a rank. Whether we are a spouse, a child, whatever it is. That we’re all the same.”
One of the best aspects of Coast Guard life, she said, is the chance to travel and meet families.
Whether it is touring a clinic in Miami or watching welders show school children how they repair ships, she takes something from every meeting. For example, she recalls a man whose wife is a Coast Guard auxiliarist in Alameda, California, whom she met at a women’s leadership and development conference – he was there to help ensure that the Coast Guard would be a promising career and safe environment for his young daughter. Or the time she met a rescue swimmer’s mother, who happens to live on the same street as DeNinno’s aunt. After the chance meeting, she met the Coast Guardsman at an award ceremony.
“I was so excited – ‘Oh my gosh, I know your mom!’” she said she told him.
All of these chance interactions are the path to DeNinno’s ultimate goal: to learn about what is happening in the Coasties’ lives.
“It really makes a difference. If we meet each other, it’s not just a job,” DeNinno said. “I want them to all feel connected as part of the family.”
Toward that end, DeNinno said, she has extended her reach on social media. She is active on Facebook and Twitter because she wants to find Coast Guard families where they prefer to communicate, she said. She lures them in with Cubby, a Coast Guard bear, which she uses in photos she posts posing with everyone from active duty members to celebrities.
Social media is also a way to break down barriers so that when she visits a station as ombudsman-at-large, families are willing to tell her if they need help.
“Sometimes it takes a lot of people to say, ‘You think it’s fixed, but not really,’” DeNinno said. “That’s the advantage of being ombudsman-at-large because you can meet with people and talk with people.”
Which is exactly what happened with the delays in the childcare subsidy, she said. She said she and Janet Cantrell, the wife of Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Steven Cantrell, kept hearing that there were delays in receiving the childcare subsidy and long wait lists at child development centers. Every time they thought it was fixed, they would go out and someone else would say it wasn’t.
“Sometimes people go through all the right channels, and they are still stuck somewhere,” she said. “And that’s what happened with our childcare subsidy.”
Due to those interactions, they have been able to make inroads in repairing the problem, she said. She said her priority as an ombudsman-at-large is to take care of families and children, and childcare is at the core of that.
During her 25 years as a working parent in a career that required extensive travel, she said, childcare often became an obstacle. She and her husband had one son together soon after they married, and she is also a stepparent to his children from a previous marriage. Remembering the nights she would hand off the baby to him so she could go to work, or flying her parents in to babysit when she had to travel, makes her want to find ways to make that easier for parents, she said.
“I realize that it’s hard for families who want to take jobs but are hesitant because they don’t have childcare for weekends or nights,” she said. “I’m looking into wanting to find resources for that. I remember those nights when I had to travel. You don’t always have your family right there.”
She spoke with an active duty member in Alameda, California, who developed a childcare cooperative with other Coast Guard families for nights they are on call. Now they all trade babysitting duties.
“It also goes to show you that when people have a concern or an issue, they can get together to work that solution out,” DeNinno said. “The people in the Coast Guard, they are willing to work together to say, ‘What can we do to help each other out?’”
DeNinno said she and her family have experienced what every Coast Guard family experiences – the moves, the new schools, the constant juggling of home and work priorities.
“So I definitely understand that difficulty of trying to juggle – how do you have time for your family? How do you have time for your spouse? How do you have time for work? And do all of them well? It’s hard. It’s hard. Sometimes one thing gets all the attention, and everything else kind of goes to the side,” she said. “I definitely understand that juggle.”
No matter the challenge facing Coast Guard families, DeNinno said, no one has to face them alone.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help or to accept help from others. You don’t need to do this journey alone,” she said. “So many people want to help and are very good at it. Accept it graciously. Someday you may be in a position to help someone else. It will make your life a bit easier.”
Like every Coast Guard family who just moved, DeNinno is adjusting to her new life in Washington, D.C. Her family lives on the West Coast, and her favorite duty station was Hawaii. She said she still has boxes that are not unpacked, and she doesn’t keep a perfectly clean house. Through all the previous moves, she said, she has learned that every location has its positives and negatives (she is not looking forward to snow), and it is always better to focus on the positives.
“You have to find the good things,” she said “It’s not to say that I don’t have those days when I say, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I doing here? I want to be in Hawaii on the beach. We all have those. It’s a normal part of life. You get past that, and you force yourself out the door.”
For her, she is running out the door to find ways to connect with other Coast Guard families. The one thing she said she wants them to know is that she sincerely wants to hear from them.
“Don’t be afraid of me. I think people have this image of the commandant’s wife as being up on a pedestal or unapproachable,” she said “I always tell people, ‘I don’t have a rank. I’m a spouse. I’ve gone through the same troubles or concerns, whatever you want to call it. I’ve dealt with working, children, moving. All the same issues everyone else has. I know what it’s like out there. It hasn’t been easy, and so I want people to approach me. I want people to feel comfortable with me.”
What comments or questions do you have for Fran DeNinno? Put them in the comments section below!
The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.