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
It was struggling on those cold Michigan nights as a young Coast Guard spouse that Janet Cantrell remembers. She was working as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant, getting to and from work in an old car that wouldn’t go in reverse.
“You can imagine the wash water,” she said with a laugh. “So when I got off work at night, I would sit in the car, in the snow. I could stick my foot out the door in the snow, and push it back so that I could back out of the parking lot, and then do it all again the next day. But it was a paycheck, and it helped provide for our family. I was doing my part.”
They were a young couple with three children who needed her second income, and this was the way to get it.
“At first, I was so embarrassed, but then it got to ‘I don’t care. This is me. This is what I do, and this is my life. It’s okay.’ It could be worse,” Cantrell said. “There were struggles, and mine no more than the next person’s.”
Cantrell, wife of Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Steve Cantrell, is using her past to guide her present. Her experiences as a Coast Guard spouse for almost 28 years serve as a constant reminder of how she wants to help military spouses today.
“I think it truly makes you a stronger family, and it allows you to tell your story later to someone else,” Cantrell said. “So you kind of pay it forward, if you will, helping others. Use your struggles and your strengths, and what you have gained from this whole journey, and pass it forward.”
Each of her three priorities as an ombudsman-at-large, education, childcare and housing, have a direct connection to her experiences and those of families she has met along the way.
Working as a dishwasher was just one of many jobs Cantrell has held. Among others, she has worked as a secretary, worked in retail, worked at a radio station and taught piano lessons at home.
“Everywhere we moved, I found I was doing something different, but it was fun,” she said. “It was a second income, which we had to have. We had to have it.”
But with each new move, the job market got more competitive, and her experience was no longer winning out.
“The older I got, my experience wasn’t enough to compete any more. I was competing with these beautiful young minds who had a degree,” Cantrell said. “So, when I turned 50, I said, ‘Okay. Before I go out and start this application process and redo my resume, I think I need a little more to my toolbox.’”
Her children had all finished college, and her husband had earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees through the Coast Guard. So she was able to use her husband’s Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to get her associates degree in human services. She said she is grateful for the educational opportunity she had, and she hopes to see more families take advantage of the same, whether it’s through scholarships or the GI Bill. As part of her degree program, Cantrell completed an internship helping homeless families become more self-sufficient, and that had an indelible imprint on how she views providing assistance.
“I built that compassion even more so when I began working with the homeless,” Cantrell said. “Realizing first-hand a human being is a human being is a human being. Everyone deserves respect and dignity. Just, the compassion grew. The more I saw happening in a positive way — that was pure motivation — the more I wanted to do.”
Adding her work experience to her experience with 13 Coast Guard moves, three children , seven grandchildren , and nearly 28 years as a military spouse, Cantrell is planning to focus on finding ways to connect with Coast Guard families and help them get access existing support resources.
“With this particular position I am in, I’ll call it that, I think my background helping others flowed right in with a continuation as to what I want to do for the four years that we’re here,” she said. “I want to be the one to listen, counsel and to help. I want to be the one who has the resources to help our young spouses and add a little direction. But mostly, I want them to know that I am here to listen an d can help others because I have been where they are.”
Most recently, Cantrell worked to bring attention to the delay in childcare subsidy payments for Coast Guard families. Ideally, Cantrell said, she would like to see faster resolution for families needing childcare support. In her personal experience, she said, she remembers trying to work and find childcare. The subsidy didn’t exist back then, and she would have appreciated having it, so she is trying to make sure it gets to everyone who needs it.
“So to have that available now, that is just the thing I am really, really trying to stay on top of,” she said. “Getting this subsidy to families in ample time so that they don’t get themselves in such debt over childcare.And I don’t want anyone, any young spouse, to feel that they can’t afford to go to work. They have something to offer, they have an education, they have something they want to give, and yet due to childcare expenses, they are unable to get out there and do that. It’s tough for these young people right now.”
Another issue on her radar is housing. She said that no matter whether families are using Coast Guard housing or finding homes on the economy, there can be issues.
“But I think there are things being put in place now that are more helpful,” she said.
There is more information available, which helps families navigate the process that much more easily, she said. She has also seen great strides in finding help before a move by looking into Facebook groups.
“I think that now, with social media, that helps connect. It helps find the best school systems, the medical facilities, the special needs,” she said. “So, I’m seeing progress in that. Simply because the spouses are talking. It’s great.”
Next on her agenda is to learn as much as possible about existing support for Coast Guard families so that she can help guide them when they need it. She said the support system is there, but the challenge has been getting the word out to families so that they can use them.
“We have so many wonderful programs set up now that we didn’t always have,” Cantrell said “That’s one thing I really want to do – to learn more about the resources. So when a spouse comes to me with a particular issue, I’ll have the tools to know exactly how to direct them.That’s a priority of mine, is to learn. I think you learn some every day.”
As she looks forward to the next 3.5 years, she knows she has her work cut out for her. But more than anything else, her goal is to show Coast Guard families that she understands them, and she is ready to help them.
“I want people to come to me, and talk to me and know that I relate. I can certainly relate, and appreciate, and respect because I’ve been there. And I know how difficult,” she said, pausing to gather her composure against the rising tears.“And I know the struggles. And the dirty dishes. But the spouse comes home, and you just have a sense of appreciation for family. I appreciate my husband, I appreciate the Coast Guard, and I love our life. I think I’m so fortunate to be able to say that.”
Post 9/11 GI Bill: Find information on how to access educational benefits.
Childcare subsidy: This is the main site for the subsidy, which is facilitated through the General Services Administration.
Coast Guard Child Development Centers: There are 9 CDCs on Coast Guard stations, but families are also eligible to send their children to CDCs on other branch’s military installations.
Homes.mil: This new DoD website is dedicated to helping military families find homes.
Information about mandated housing: An explanation of how mandated housing works, and where to get help if you need it.
What questions or comments do you have for Mrs. Cantrell? What resources have you found that you love? Share them in the comments section.
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.