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 aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 16 years. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Military Family Advisory Network .
Written by Shelley Kimball
I often say that Coast Guard ombudsmen are my super heroes, but this one probably needs her own cape.
Rachel Conley was selected as the Wanda Allen-Yearout Coast Guard Ombudsman of the Year. The award recognizes an ombudsman each year who has shown exceptional commitment to supporting Coast Guard families, and it was named after a woman who worked tirelessly more than 30 years ago to help build an ombudsman program for the service.
This year’s recipient is the current ombudsman for seven units. That is not a typo. Seriously, seven units: Coast Guard Base National Capital Region, CG Headquarters, the Coast Guard Yard, the CG Surface Forces Logistics Center, Air Station Washington, the Maritime Infrastructure Protection Force, and the Asset Project Office in Baltimore, Maryland.
“I’d take on the whole Coast Guard, if I could,” Conley said with a laugh — but she’s not completely kidding.
She’s been an ombudsman for seven years now. Her story of service begins earlier than that, though. When she and her husband, Chief Warrant Officer James Conley, got married 11 years ago, she felt isolated. They were high school sweethearts, and she was taking on a new life as a Coast Guard spouse. She wanted to make sure no one else felt like she did.
“I wanted to be someone people could turn to and not feel alone,” Conley said. “I wanted to make sure that I was providing a really good service to our community.”
So that’s what she has set out to do. She has used her own experiences as a mother and active duty spouse to connect with families.
Experiences like moving four times, geobaching early in her marriage, and most recently, having to hold down the fort as her husband took an unaccompanied tour in Saudi Arabia with the Maritime Infrastructure Training Advisory Group (that group is still one of the seven units she serves), have all provided Conley with a unique perspective and expertise into Coast Guard life.
Additionally, Conley and her husband are parents to three kids with special needs: Will, 14, Clara, 8, and Caroline, 3. (Conley also homeschools Clara), which provides another layer of knowledge and experience that Conley can draw upon when speaking to families.
“This life is definitely an adventure, to be sure,” she said.
She hit her stride from those early days, and she said Coast Guard life has brought her more joy than she expected. As an ombudsman, she spends a lot of her time researching and providing resource referrals, answering questions, supporting other ombudsman when they need it, and also training new ombudsmen.
The work is not always easy. She stands by and assists Coast Guard families during their most difficult times, like cancer diagnoses, and losses of loved ones, or helping find resources for active duty members experiencing suicidal ideation.
“Ombudsmen get to serve members and their families in some of their harder moments,” she said. “So just being able to be there in the moment and provide support in any way that I can is always such an honor.”
A typical exchange with Conley when asking about the obstacles she faces, or challenges as an ombudsman, show her eternal optimism. After hearing the question, there was a very long pause. Very long. Then she started laughing.
“I’d love to save the world, but it’s really not possible. That’s my biggest issue,” she said through laughter. “There’s not enough time in the day? The fact that I can’t take on the whole Coast Guard?”
It took her a few hours, and she finally came up with an obstacle, and it’s an obstacle you can help her with. According to Conley, a challenge for all of our ombudsmen is getting contact information for the families they serve. Making that connection is a priority for ombudsmen, she said, and it would really help if families took a moment to touch base with the ombudsmen for their units.
“Every day, our ombudsmen are working to educate members and families on the many benefits of the Ombudsman Program — obtaining contact information from members and families is essential to achieving the missions of the Ombudsman Program,” she said.
Conley loves her work with families and assisting other ombudsmen, she said. Being selected for this award makes Conley hopeful that she can do even more.
“It’s such an honor. It means the world to me,” she said. “I really love this program. I really love this community. I hope it is a platform to make an even bigger difference to support our ombudsman and our Coast Guard community in even bigger and better ways.”
Find your ombudsman: Scroll to the bottom right side of the page and click the link marked, “Contact Your Ombudsman.”
The ombudsman program: This is an overview on how the program works.
Ombudsman Training Manual: This has a wealth of information about Coast Guard life, whether or not you are an ombudsman.
Other stories like this: In the past, we have had stories about great work by ombudsmen, favorite resources from ombudsmen, the history of the ombudsman program, and ombudsmen selected for the Wanda Allen-Yearout Ombudsman of the Year award in 2015, and 2016.
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.