Growing up as a kid in the 1980’s, I idolized Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space. Her trailblazing story appeared in school text books, a poster of her, life-sized in a flight suit, hung in the hallways next to rows of lockers. I wanted to be an astronaut and just as cool as her in a flight suit. She was such a popular role model for my generation of young women, possessing the confidence in herself and her skills to be successful at any endeavor she took on. She never set out to be a pioneer, she was just being herself and striving for what she wanted.
I think the same could be said for the two military veteran role models in my life. My Grandpa was a Marine who served in the South Pacific theatre of World War II and my Uncle was a career officer in the Coast Guard. When I raised my hand to take the Oath of Office and join the Coast Guard, I never considered myself a “woman joining the military”. I simply wanted to serve my country like my Grandpa and Uncle did. More than anything, I wanted to be a part of the country’s oldest seagoing service, one whose primary mission is search and rescue and saving lives.
The women leaders that I admire now in my adulthood, are those lesser known Coast Guard leaders who weren’t necessarily focused on being “the first” of anything, but just doing their job with excellence and honor. Women like Ida Lewis, once referred to as the “Bravest Woman in America”, who in the 1850’s became the first woman lighthouse keeper in one of the Coast Guard’s predecessor agencies. She was an excellent boat handler, credited with saving at least 18 lives, her first rescue occurring when she was just 16 years old. Responding to her critics, asking if it was un-ladylike for women to row rescue boats, Lewis responded, “No one, but a donkey, would consider it ‘un-feminine’, to save lives”.
I think about women who felt the desire to do their part as the entire world went to war. Genevieve and Lucille Baker, twin sisters who at 19 years of age, were the first women to serve as uniformed military in the Coast Guard in World War I. I admire the Coast Guard SPARs, the World War II female corps, similar to the Navy WAVE’s and Army WACs, who served as parachute riggers and equipment drivers. One of those SPARs, Florence Finch, who just passed away last year at the age of 101, was a saboteur with the underground resistance movement in her native Philippines. She smuggled food, medicine, soap and clothing to U.S POW’s, until she herself was caught and became a POW along with them. Tortured and interrogated she never gave up information to her captors and was held for three years until released in 1945.
In 1979, two years after women were assigned to sea duty aboard Coast Guard cutters, Beverly Kelley became Captain of a 95-foot Cutter, the CAPE NEWAGEN, becoming the first woman to command a U.S. military ship.
Vivien Crea, is the most recent example of a Coastie woman accomplishing great things. One of the first women aviators in the Coast Guard, she was the first member from the Coast Guard, and first woman in any service, to serve as Presidential Military Aide, carrying the nuclear “football” for President Ronald Reagan for three years. She was the first woman to attain the rank of Admiral for the Coast Guard, ultimately being appointed the first woman Vice Commandant in 2006, the second highest position in the entire Coast Guard. This distinction also made her the first woman to serve as a deputy service chief in any of the Armed Forces. I had the honor of working with and getting to know her towards the end of her career, when I was Aide for one of her Admiral peers.
These women may be well-known, either worldwide or within a smaller sphere of influence, but their reasons for serving their country were about a sense of duty as an American and having a shot at doing something they desired. While it may not have been their intention, I’m glad they became influencers who paved the way for women like me follow in their footsteps. Their courage and bravery to say “I want to do this” is what resonates with me. That’s what being a veteran means to me. All veterans joined the military for many reasons, but being famous wasn’t one of them. All of us did it because we felt a higher calling, and to do our duty the best we could alongside our shipmates.
The late Sally Ride once said, “I would like to be remembered as someone who was not afraid to do what she wanted to do, and as someone who took risks along the way in order to achieve her goals.” This a message I want to instill in my children, son or daughter. I sure hope that’s how I am remembered as a veteran, as a woman, as a person.
Sarah Holzhalb works for Team Red, White and Blue, a veteran service organization that enriches the lives of veterans through physical, social and volunteer activities A born and raised Virginian she served five years as a commissioned officer in the Coast Guard. She lives in Covington with her husband and children, where they are active with various veteran and community organizations, enjoy running and any outdoor activities together.