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 currently serves as an advisor for the Military Family Advisory Network.
Written by Shelley Kimball
The call to serve never went away for Valerie Johnson, and after 9/11, she listened.
Johnson, whose husband is Coast Guard Reserve Force Master Chief Eric Johnson, is one of three Coast Guard ombudsmen at large. She also currently serves in the New Hampshire Air National Guard.
A few years after 9/11, when her children were 1 and 2, she said she remembers thinking, “You know, Valerie, you have it all. This is awesome.”
But there was still something she was hoping to add to her life.
“I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing still. I had always been drawn to the military,” she said. “I had what I call a patriotic calling. I just needed to serve.”
She told her husband about her goal. And he said they could make it work. So she joined the Air National Guard. Her husband took vacation time to stay with their children while she was at basic training. Her mom also stepped in to help take care of the kids.
About 11 years have passed, and Johnson is still a traditional guardsman with her New Hampshire unit, where she is now a master sergeant and the superintendent of vehicle operations. She said she drives trucks, and she loves it. Joining the guard fulfilled that missing piece in her life.
“I just felt complete,” she said, “I think when you’re a mom, and you totally put everything that you ever desired aside. I didn’t want to have any regrets, and I was lucky that Eric supported me in that.”
Being a dual military couple began smoothly enough, but a few years in, Johnson and her husband were about to face a swirl of chaos from both of their military careers.
Eric Johnson had joined a Coast Guard Reserve Port Security Unit in 2004. Soon after, he deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for 6 months. If all went on schedule, Valerie and their two youngest kids, who by now were 4 and 5, would all move with him to San Juan, Puerto Rico, when he returned. That part worked, but Valerie was moving with orders in hand to deploy to Iraq a few weeks after they arrived in Puerto Rico.
“A month before he came home, I got orders that I deployed to Iraq,” she said. “So he came home in June, we PCSed in July, and three weeks later I went to Iraq for 6 months. It was very stressful.”
They made it work through support from their family and some of the new Coast Guard friends they made in Puerto Rico. The Coastie families banded together and brought meals to Eric and sent care packages to Valerie while she was away.
She returned after 6 months, and they lived in Puerto Rico for 2 and a half more years.
“That was the first time that I had left where I grew up in Northern New Hampshire,” she said. “It was quite a change, but we were ready for a change and a challenge. It was a really exciting time.”
Even with all of the moving since then, Johnson has kept her ties to New Hampshire. She continues to fly up monthly to complete her National Guard duties.
When Eric and Valerie met in New Hampshire, he was a state trooper and a drilling reservist with the Coast Guard, and she was selling cars. They met in passing at a convenience store one afternoon, with a little help from the store clerk.
“I walked in and Eric wasn’t in uniform or anything, but we literally locked eyes and we just immediately knew,” Valerie said. “ He stepped out for a minute and, and I said to the store clerk, ‘Who is that?’”
The store clerk told her who he was and said he was a local guy. The next day, Valerie came back to the convenience store to fill another car for the dealership, and the store clerk was waiting to see her. Eric, too, had asked about her, and he had left his phone number.
“And I called him, and we decided to go out on a date that Friday night, and we just clicked. And 4 and a half months later, we were married,” she said with a laugh. “So that was 15 years ago.”
They are now parents to four children: two adult children from Eric’s previous marriage, and two more between them who are 12 and 13.
Last year, Eric was named the Coast Guard Reserve Master Chief. Along with that came Valerie’s opportunity to represent Coast Guard families as an ombudsman at large.
Nearly 9,000 people serve in the Coast Guard Reserve, working in marine safety, law enforcement and mission support.
Having lived so many of the facets of military life, Valerie Johnson is using those experiences to make sure the Coast Guard families she meets find the services they need.
“I get to listen to what the families’ concerns are and maybe help them find solutions,” she said. “Of course, the fun part is hearing all the great things going on in their lives, but when the members deploy, that really can be tough on families, especially if this is their first one. I just want to make sure I can help get the resources there, and be an ear for them. And share some of my experiences, too.”
One of the ways she helps families find the resources they need is through the Coast Guard Yellow Ribbon Program. Yellow Ribbon focuses on the needs of deploying families by providing resources for family counseling, financial education and other support to ensure family readiness. The program greets families at predeployment and sees them through to reintegration, Valerie said.
“Yellow Ribbon events are so valuable,” she said. “It’s a time that we can really focus on the needs of the families getting ready to deploy, checking in half way through the deployment, and then shortly after they return. Many resources are offered to them during this weekend such as CG Support, financial services, meeting with a chaplain and many other veteran service groups.”
She also hopes to be a voice for reserve families, considering she understands being on both sides as a Guardsman and a family member.
“I feel like it takes a special person to be a part of the Coast Guard Reserve because they are doing their civilian job all week long, and they don’t have the days off – once a month they go straight to their reserve duties and leave their families. Just the sacrifice that they give,” she said.
One of her priorities as an ombudsman at large is to find a way to connect reserve families so they don’t feel isolated. When she and her husband were first married, she said she didn’t know anyone else in his reserve unit, and she did not have connections with other Coast Guard spouses. She said she wants to bridge that gap for other reserve spouses.
“I know what it felt like to be lonely and not to feel part of the organization. My spouse is going off once a month, and two weeks a year, and at the time I didn’t know a lot about the Coast Guard,” she said. “And I just remember feeling like I wish I knew more. I wish I knew other families that had experienced what I experienced. I think that would be helpful.”
She said she working on ways increase communication among reserve family members.
She said she also finds that ombudsmen can be a great resource for families trying to find information and support.
“I’ve met so many incredible ombudsmen who are truly dedicated to making sure the families have what they need,” she said. “It’s a volunteer position. It’s so selfless. They are really, really appreciated.”
Another priority on the horizon is helping families find childcare when Coast Guard duty calls. She said she knows from experience that some reserve members travel great distances to get to their units for weekend duties. She remembers one chief telling her about a young Coastie checking into a hotel for reserve duty with her two-year-old daughter, a pack and play, and a stroller. She had traveled six hours to get there and had hired a sitter to stay in the hotel room with her daughter.
She said she is looking into finding ways to help make sure families have childcare when they need it. She also recommends developing a Family Care Plan to help navigate childcare when things get difficult. She and her husband used them during their deployments.
“When you join either as a dual military couple or if you are a single parent, you do have to have a family care plan put in place,” she said. “It doesn’t always go that easy when it is time to implement it.”
And a third priority is ensuring that families in the special needs program get the information and services available to them. The Johnsons’ son was diagnosed with autism when he was four, so they know what it is like to try to access services. She said she will continue to advocate for families and help get out the word on what is available.
“I know some of the challenges special needs families face,” she said. “I want to make sure that they know they are supported.”
Valerie Johnson continues her duties as a Guardsman, while holding down the fort at home as a Coast Guard spouse. She said she has special admiration for the families of those who serve in the reserve.
“Thanking them for giving them to us for once a month, two weeks a year, and deployments,” she said. “It’s not just the members who are sacrificing for the country. It’s the families. It’s the whole family.”
Some of Valerie Johnson’s favorite resources for families are:
HSWL App : She is quick to pull out her phone to access to app for information. She said it is a handy way to get access to an ombudsman as well as to find links to family support programs like chaplains, housing, legal services and MWR.
CG Support: “This is the 911 for Coast Guard families,” she said. Coast Guard Support not only offers emergency assistance during mental health crises, it also offers health, wellness and financial education resources.
Ombudsman Registry : Go to the bottom right corner of the page to find an ombudsman by location – especially helpful for Coast Guard Reserve families who may live farther from a unit.
The Coast Guard Yellow Ribbon Program : Provides resources for families through all stages of the deployment process.
The Coast Guard Reserve : Information about the thousands of members of the Coast Guard Reserve.
Special Needs Program : The Johnsons’ know first-hand how important it is to have support as a special needs family. This link helps Coast Guard families find the services they need.
What questions or comments do you have for Valerie Johnson? Write them in the comments below. She’s looking forward to hearing from you!
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.