For a service encumbered by an expanding operational mission and financial shortfalls, the Coast Guard Auxiliary and civilian workforces have proven to be valuable assets for the Coast Guard. Like anchors on a ship, they provide needed stability during turbulent and unsure times.
Michelle Thornton, who currently serves as the Coast Guard Auxiliary district captain for Hampton Roads and as a civilian employee for the Coast Guard, has become one of the anchors; her story typifies the contribution and dedication of both Coast Guard auxiliarists and civilians.
“Right now in my civilian job, I am the eyes and ears for Vice Adm. (William “Dean”) Lee,” said Thornton. “We monitor the districts and all of the cases that are going on anywhere in the Atlantic Area from east of the Rockies all the way to the Persian Gulf.”
Thornton said she is able to balance her civilian job and her volunteer work as district captain for Sector Hampton Roads largely due to her desire to better serve the Coast Guard.
“The volunteers, the active duty, there’s such a wide variety of experiences and knowledge that it’s never ceases to amaze me,” said Thornton. “We’ve got doctors and dentists and rocket scientists. It’s just wonderful. We have a diverse group of people who really want to help the public,” she said. “The Coast Guard has been so good to me, and I am passionate about the work I do for this great organization.”
Thornton started her enlisted service to the Coast Guard in 1991, and became rated as a quartermaster responsible for navigating the Coast Guard’s surface assets. In her nine years of active duty she took the Coast Guard’s core values to heart, and even after her transition to civilian life felt the urge to continue her service to the nation.
After leaving active duty while stationed in Kodiak, Alaska, Thornton decided to pack up and move to sunny Key West, Florida, where she accepted a position as a civilian search and rescue controller for the Coast Guard.
While working as a civilian employee, Thornton was introduced to the idea of becoming a Coast Guard Auxiliary member in 2003.
“I was getting my feet wet with my new job and my sector commander came in one day and said, ‘Michelle, the auxiliary needs a sector coordinator and I think you’d be a great fit for the job,’” said Thornton. “I thought to myself, ‘wow this sounds interesting,’ and so my sector commander put me in contact with the local flotilla, and they got me active in the auxiliary right away!”
As an auxiliary sector commander, her responsibilities included being the liaison between the auxiliary and the local sector, as well as improving auxiliary readiness and performance in response to sector directives.
After excelling as the Coast Guard sector commander, Thornton was singled out for her exceptional leadership abilities and work ethic. Her exemplary service led her to be chosen for higher responsibility as an auxiliary staff officer.
“My unique background of being active duty and a civilian gave me a well-rounded, inside knowledge of what the Coast Guard does, and that proved to be valuable to the auxiliary,” she said. “Everything was lining up at the right time.”
Her advancement in the auxiliary found her moving from performing administrative duties to working directly with the district commander as an auxiliary district captain.
“I was elected as the district captain for Sector Hampton Roads in September 2014, to serve for the 2015 year. My leadership progression started as a flotilla staff officer, then as a vice flotilla commander. Commander moved into division commander and now district captain,” she said. “Right now, Sector Hampton Roads is my area of responsibility, so all the auxiliary members in the area report to me. I am also the liaison between all the auxiliary units and the auxiliary district executive committee.”
Thornton said she is currently a certified boat coxswain, public education instructor, and a marine dealer visitor. She also provides support to Regional Exam Center Miami by helping mariners with the fingerprinting and citizenship verification portions of their captain license applications.
“Getting the recreational boating safety word out to the public is one of the most important jobs I do in the auxiliary. But also, the vessel safety checks, the public education and meeting with marine dealers to promote awareness are all really important too,” she said.
Thornton said she doesn’t have any plans to stop her volunteer work with the auxiliary.
“I think I’ll always be a part of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. I take a lot of pride in the services we provide and in the relationships I’ve built,” she said.
The all-volunteer lifesaving service, with nearly 32,000 men and women, offers a unique opportunity to make a real difference in local communities and across the country.
“Imagine a stadium, filled with people who want to serve their nation, who feel comfortable on the water, and I’d ask them, ‘What have you done for your country? What service have you given to your nation?’ If you haven’t done anything, then we have an opportunity for you,” said Lee, the Atlantic Area commander.
According to the Coast Guard Auxiliary’s Website, Congress established the Coast Guard Auxiliary in 1939. The auxiliary’s main missions are to promote and improve recreational boating safety, to provide trained crews and facilities to augment the Coast Guard, to enhance safety and security of our ports, waterways, and coastal regions, and to support Coast Guard operational, administrative, and logistical requirements.
But in addition to those missions, the auxiliary operates in any regular Coast Guard mission as directed by the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard or Secretary of Homeland Security.
Thornton said the auxiliary is always recruiting members, and it’s easy to join.
“Anyone who’s 17 or older and who does not have a felony record can apply to the auxiliary. It’s so easy, and all you have to do is go to join.cgaux.org,” she said.
Beyond the statistics, beyond the pamphlets and beyond the training, Thornton’s dedication to the Coast Guard is clear. Her typical workweek includes 40 hours as a Coast Guard civilian and 20 hours as a volunteer auxiliarist for the Coast Guard.
“Michelle does great work, they all do so much, and with the hustle and bustle of our daily activities, we kind of forget sometimes what they’re doing, and have failed many times, regrettably so, to recognize them and give them due credit for all they do, and all they bring to the table,” said Lee.
He said both Coast Guard civilians and auxiliarists are integral to the Coast Guard. They do important work that ensures their service is able to seamlessly respond to any of the Coast Guard’s missions.
“We, the active duty members, are immensely grateful for all that the auxiliary does. They bring their passion and energy, they are a force multiplier for us and we’d be foolish not to capitalize on that,” said Lee. “Michelle is amazing. She’s a hard worker who contributes so much to the Coast Guard. I would take a dozen of her any day. She works extremely hard and I’m happy to have her as part of our team.”