Friday, February 20, 2015

Four Awesome Coast Guard Women

I joined the Coast Guard thanks to a woman (well, many women, but one in particular): my older sister. Four years before I showed up at the Coast Guard Academy, she did the same. All throughout high school, I watched her endure the training: the push-ups, the marching, the heavy course load, the loss of the most basic privileges. I saw her excel in spite of all of it, saw her grow even stronger than she was before, and I thought to myself:

Holy crap, I am never doing that.

Still, it sucked me in like an undertow. A mere two months after she received her commission, I began Swab Summer at the Academy: a grueling introduction to a grueling four years. It’s not something I ever would have considered, that I ever would have thought to do – if my sister hadn’t done it before me.

In that spirit, I’d like to take a moment to honor the sacrifices of some of the women who served as pioneers of the Coast Guard. Of course, none of them signed up just to be the ‘first woman’ to do something. Rather, they all saw a need, saw a purpose, saw an opportunity – and did something about it.

Here are four women I admire.


1. Barbara Mabrity – Guarding the Coast Before There Was a Coast Guard

In 1826, Barbara Mabrity’s husband, Michael, received an appointment from the Lighthouse Establishment to serve as Keeper of Key West lighthouse, far from the Florida mainland, with Barbara acting as Assistant Keeper. Like most lighthouses at the time, Key West light needed constant maintenance: the lenses had to be wiped of soot and the lantern wicks trimmed every four hours to keep the light burning brightly enough to be visible. It was a difficult profession that provided a meager existence, often in remote locations, which occasionally required life-saving duties. Failure as a Keeper meant the deaths of sailors, the loss of vital cargo, and the closure of critical sea lanes.

After six years at Key West light, Michael died during a bout of yellow fever. Because of her specific local knowledge and experience, the customs authority deemed Barbara to be the best candidate to replace him. She received an official appointment in 1832 as Keeper of Key West Light, including a Federal salary equal to her late husband’s.

For the next 30 years, Barbara held the post, allowing her to provide for her family. As Keeper, she survived two wars and four major hurricanes – including one that collapsed the lighthouse and claimed the lives of five of her six children. (The same storm killed Rebecca Flaherty, who had been appointed Keeper of nearby Sand Key light in 1830, by washing her entire station out to sea).

Along with a handful of other Keepers’ widows and daughters who received official appointments, Mabrity was one of the first female officials employed by the Federal government, and in a way, one of the first female Coasties. I think it’s only right that, when we speak of women in the Coast Guard, we remember that the story started here: with Mabrity, Flaherty, and a dozen others.

2. Florence Ebersole Smith Finch – Operative of the Philippine Underground

Florence Finch was born in 1915 on the island of Luzon, Philippines, the daughter of a U.S. Army soldier and a Filipina mother. After graduating from high school, she worked for the U.S. Army intelligence office in Manila, where she met and married Chief Electrician’s Mate Edward Smith of the U.S. Navy. A mere four months after her wedding, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and a month after that, began invading the Philippines.

Rather than flee, Finch stayed behind to care for her younger sister and sister’s child. Because of her heritage, she was able to convince the invading Japanese that she was not American, and they assigned her to clerical work tallying fuel distribution. Over the next two years, she used her position to divert fuel and supplies to the Philippine Resistance, to coordinate acts of sabotage against Japanese forces, and to help smuggle food and medicine to American prisoners of war – including her former boss, a U.S. Army Colonel held in Manila.

However, in October of 1944, the Japanese discovered her actions, and she was taken to an internment camp. There, she was interrogated about her resistance activities and tortured with electrical devices. She also learned that her husband, Edward Smith, had been killed aboard his patrol boat shortly after the Japanese invasion. She remained a prisoner until American forces retook the Philippines in early 1945.

Following her liberation, she moved to New York and enlisted in the Coast Guard’s Women’s Reserve (the SPARs), so that she could, in her words, “avenge the death of [her] husband.”

For her actions in the Philippines, the Coast Guard granted Finch the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign ribbon, making her the first woman to receive said award. She also received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1947, after the SPARs disbanded.

3. Vivien Crea – Most Heavily-Armed Coastie in History

As a Lieutenant Commander, Vivien Crea became the first woman of any military branch (as well as the first Coastie) to be appointed as a Presidential Military Aide. For three years at the height of the Cold War, Crea carried the nuclear football for Reagan: she held the briefcase containing the remote command center for launching all of America’s ICBMs.

This also meant that, after being mocked for so long as the weakest military service, the Coast Guard suddenly held more firepower than every other service combined.

I can only imagine the temptation.

In 2006, Vice Admiral Crea became the first female Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard (the Coast Guard’s second in command). Since there were also periods during this time where she served as acting Commandant, it means she was the first woman placed in charge of any military branch.

4. Kelly Mogk Larson – Rescue Swimmer

Kelly Larson doesn’t enjoy the spotlight. Like any true rescuer, she prefers to do her work and do it well rather than do it for fame or glory. In fact, if she’s reading this, she’s probably rolling her eyes at the mere fact that I’ve mentioned her. But I’ll continue, because I think her story is an important one.

Larson was the first woman to complete the rigorous, 18-week training program and become a Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer. Rescue swimming is easily the most difficult job the Coast Guard offers: it requires jumping out of helicopters into stormy seas and into the deadliest conditions, to free drowning sailors from wrecks and swim them back to safety. Anyone who completes Rescue Swimmer school deserves our respect and our thanks.

Larson’s most famous rescue was also her first. In January of 1989, an F-4 Phantom fighter went down 35 miles off the coast of Oregon. Both the pilot and co-pilot ejected – but were forced to do so at excessive speed. The pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Mike Markstaller, suffered multiple injuries as he ejected the cockpit, and hit the water so fast that he not only broke his leg but became entangled in his own parachute.

If you’ve ever been at sea off the Pacific Northwest in January, you know just how blinding, cold, and pounding the waves can be. To make matters worse, in a churning ocean, something like a parachute acts more as an anchor than a raft, dragging you slowly downward.

Larson had initially been assigned as the swimmer for the backup helicopter, but became the primary rescuer when the first helicopter suffered a mechanical failure. She dove into the water and found Markstaller hypothermic and near death, wrapped up in his own parachute cords and unable to climb into his life raft. She worked for half an hour in the freezing surf to untangle him, and then swam him to the helicopter’s harness - no easy task, especially since the 6-foot-tall, 200-pound Markstaller refused to let go of his raft. Although his body temperature had dropped to just 84 degrees, and although he’d suffered multiple bone breaks, Larson and the helicopter crew were able to get him medical attention in time to save his life. Sadly, they were unable to reach the copilot in time; he drowned tangled in his parachute, sucked below the waves.

For her efforts in the rescue, Larson received an Air Medal awarded by President George H. W. Bush and the Secretary of Transportation. Almost immediately, praise and criticism rained down on her from all directions. Television shows and reporters requested interviews; the Coast Guard threw her onto recruiting posters. Larson, meanwhile, insisted that any swimmer could’ve made the same rescue. She didn’t feel that being elevated for her gender was appropriate. Although she was married, she was at one point asked her to remove her wedding ring for a recruiting commercial, to make her seem more available.

Because she was the first female rescue swimmer, anything she did was treated as noteworthy, even when it only matched what every Rescue Swimmer does every day. Larson remained resistant of the praise. She just wanted to do her job.

No one worthy of praise would join a military service just to be praised. I am taking a moment to praise Kelly Larson purely because I know she would hate that I'm doing it – and would then go right back to saving lives.

Go Coast Guard.

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  1. When you say Admiral Crea the first female Assistant Commandant, do mean Vice Commandant?

    1. Thank you! That was an error...I was writing that at about 4 in the morning and my brain had gone fuzzy...

  2. Your assessment of Kelly is spot on - she continues to save lives within the D13 CC and downplays the critical work she does.

  3. Florence Finch passed away Thursday, December 8, 2016. She will be buried with full military honors Saturday 29 April 2017 in Ithaca, NY.

  4. Florence Finch passed away Thursday, December 8, 2016. She will be buried with full military honors Saturday 29 April 2017 in Ithaca, NY.