This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.
Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
“I’m very, very aware of the extremely qualified women with tremendous potential right behind me.”
Vice Adm. Vivien Crea, U.S. Coast Guard
As the above quote indicates, during her active duty years, Crea saw many highly skilled women serving in the U.S. Coast Guard. In the early 1970s, the Coast Guard moved to the forefront of U.S. military policy regarding recruitment of women. In 1973, congressional legislation allowed women to serve side-by-side with men in both the active duty Coast Guard and Reserves.
With the 1973 legislation asserting women could serve alongside men, the Coast Guard became the first military service to open its Officer Candidate School, OCS, to women. Within the ranks of OCS Class 2-73 were the service’s first five female officer candidates. These women received their afloat training aboard the high-endurance cutter Unimak. It was the first time in service history that women trained aboard a cutter alongside their male counterparts. On June 8, 1973, the 29 strong OCS Class 2-73 graduated from Training Center Yorktown, Virginia, including all five female candidates. One of these graduates, Margaret Riley, enjoyed a 30-year career, commanding Supply Center-Baltimore and Integrated Support Command-Boston. Riley retired in 2003 as director of the Coast Guard Academy’s Leadership Development Center. In 1975, two years after the first women graduated from OCS, the service counted 32 women on its officer rolls.
By June 1976, the Coast Guard began to prepare for an experiment with mixed-gender cutter crews. Two high-endurance cutters, Morgenthau and Gallatin, would be staffed with a crew that included 10 enlisted women and two female officers. Beverly Kelley, an OCS graduate of 1976, served as one of these officers. Despite initial concerns by service leadership, the experiment proved a success. Later, in April 1979, Kelley became the first woman to command a military ship, the cutter Cape Newhagen, which received the Meritorious Unit Commendation under her watch. Kelley also broke new ground when she assumed command of cutter Northland in 1996 and the Boutwell in 2000. Kelley’s commands of Northland and Boutwell made her the first woman to command a medium-endurance and a high-endurance cutter.
In the late 1970s, Coast Guard women made rapid strides in aviation. In 1977, OCS graduate Janna Lambine became the first woman designated a Coast Guard aviator and the service’s first female rotary-wing pilot when she began flying the HH-3F Pelican helicopter. A 1973 OCS graduate, Crea, became the second woman designated a Coast Guard aviator, qualifying in the C-130 Hercules turboprop, and later the HH-65 Dolphin helicopter and Gulfstream II jet. As a lieutenant commander, Crea became the first service member, and the first woman from any military agency, to serve as the Presidential Military Aide. She carried the “nuclear football” for President Ronald Reagan for three years. Colleen Cain, a 1976 OCS graduate, attended flight school and became the service’s third female aviator and first female HH-52 pilot. On Jan. 7, 1982, the helicopter Cain co-piloted crashed while flying a rescue mission out of Barbers Point, Hawaii. Cain was the first female service member killed in the line of duty.
The 1980s saw further advances for women in the service. The year 1983 saw the female officer ranks grow to 129 women, with 35 serving afloat and five serving as aviators—many of them were OCS graduates. Kelly Mogk Larson enlisted in 1984 and, in 1986, she became the first female to complete Rescue Swimmer School. One of Larson’s rescues earned her an Air Medal and the congratulations of President George H.W. Bush. During the rescue, Larson exposed herself to hypothermic conditions to free a downed jet pilot from his parachute and she waited in the water for a second helicopter while hers rushed the pilot to a hospital. After several years of enlisted service, Larson attended OCS and received an officer’s commission in 1993.
The early 2000s saw more barriers broken by OCS women in the service. In 2000, Crea became the first female officer promoted to flag rank and assumed command of the Coast Guard’s 1st District. In 2004, she served concurrently as commander of Coast Guard Atlantic Area and Coast Guard Defense Force East, becoming the first woman to serve in either role. In 2006, she became the 25th vice commandant of the Coast Guard under Adm. Thad Allen. Crea was the first woman to hold the second highest position in the Coast Guard or in any military service. Moreover, while serving as acting commandant, she was the first woman in U.S. history to oversee a military service.
Other OCS women who climbed the officer ranks in the late 20th century achieved senior flag positions in the 2000s. In May 2010, Vice Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara became the Coast Guard’s second woman to serve as vice commandant of the Coast Guard. A 1975 OCS graduate, Brice-O’Hara also served as deputy commandant for operations; commander of the Fifth District in Virginia and the 14th District in Hawaii; and commanding officer of Training Center Cape May. Brice-O’Hara was the second woman in U.S. history to serve as the second in command of a military service. Vice Adm. Jody Breckenridge became the first woman to assume command of Coast Guard’s Pacific Area in 2009. A 1976 OCS graduate, Breckenridge previously oversaw the Coast Guard Recruiting Command and, from 2005 to 2006, she commanded the Coast Guard’s 11th District in Alameda.
Since the 1970s, women in the Coast Guard have come a long way with female service members occupying every active duty role formerly reserved for men. During this period, female graduates of the Coast Guard’s Officer Candidate School helped shape the Coast Guard and pioneered the role of their gender in the service, the federal government and the nation as a whole. They have made the U.S. Coast Guard into a better institution for all men and women and they will continue to play an important role in leading the service in the 21st century.