Behind the blue curtain: Astoria-based cutter offers new afloat opportunities for women

Pacific Northwest Coast Guard Newsby Petty Officer 2nd Class George Degener

The Coast Guard encourages all of its members to exercise disciplined initiative, which means that sometimes we have to deviate from doing things that are considered “normal,” simply because it’s the easy way, or “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

Standing at attention above the rolling Pacific off the Washington coast on a shakedown cruise preparing for an upcoming deployment, the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Alert recently saw a more than 40 percent turnover. This season was different for those aboard the 210-foot Medium Endurance Cutter homeported in Astoria, Ore.; standing at attention with eyes locked forward are a significant number of female faces.

Alert is the first cutter in its class to have a mixed-gender enlisted workforce, making new headway in diversity and afloat opportunities for women in the Coast Guard.

Women have been serving aboard cutters since the high endurance cutters Gallatin and Morgenthau were integrated in the spring of 1977, but women have served with distinction since before there was a Coast Guard. From the lighthouse keepers of the 1800s to the Women’s Reserve, or SPARs, of World War II to those women that live our core values today, female Coast Guardsman are crucial to the service being always ready.

“Many of the Coast Guard’s major cutters can boast mixed-crew capability, but there is a shortfall aboard the 210s,” said Cmdr. Daniel Pickles, Alert’s commanding officer. “I saw this shortfall and knew that it wasn’t right, and that it should be corrected. There had to be a way.”

Pickles sent a memo titled “Proposal for female integration onboard CGC Alert in AY-12” to Coast Guard Headquarters in August 2011. He proposed a formal review of the issues relating to integrating female enlisted sailors aboard 210s, and using Alert as a test platform to identify benefits and drawbacks to implementing a service-wide integration of women into the crews.

“Like any change, there was some initial skepticism and hesitation, however, senior leadership was open and committed to the prospect,” said Chief Petty Officer Tina Claflin, the women’s afloat assignment coordinator at Coast Guard Enlisted Personnel Management. “A lot of things fell into place with the integration of Alert. Cmdr. Pickles had just taken over command; with an already scheduled dry-dock period leading into the next assignment year.”

Coast Guard EPM released a solicitation message timed to coincide with the assignment year; the first of its kind to solicit for females only.

“The key was finding enough qualified candidates across different ratings,” said Pickles. “There were some out there that said it couldn’t be done, but after the message came out there was definitely enough interest to fill a 15-person berthing area.”

EPM received 29 interested candidates for 11 E-6 and below available positions. Seven of those candidates were chosen from different units across the service and two recent A-school graduates received orders to the ship. Five female non-rates were also assigned, leaving one rack available for temporarily assigned personnel, or off-season fills.

“I had served on two cutters before I went to small boat station,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Marissa Massey, a machinery technician in Alert’s auxiliary division. “This gave me a great opportunity to get back underway and to also be close to family that I have in the area.”

The lower, forward, 15-person berthing area aboard a 210 traditionally houses senior petty officers, but a simple modification was needed for the conversion. Looking down through the watertight scuttle from deck berthing, a blue curtain blocks the view into the racks that house the newest Alert crewmembers.

“This isn’t a new concept; women serve alongside men aboard ships across the Coast Guard,” said Lt. Cmdr. Brian Smicklas, Alert’s executive officer. “Looking back, I don’t think it’s a big deal at all. Everyone onboard works together as a crew, as shipmates, regardless of gender, race or religion. We all do our jobs and are committed to fostering an environment of proficiency, competency and respect for each other.”

As the Coast Guard moves forward with recapitalization of assets, each decommissioned 378-foot high endurance cutter means about 20 afloat opportunities lost for enlisted women. Creating opportunities at existing units can help fill the gap that this creates, and Alert’s crew shows that it’s more than possible.

“Without a doubt, the responses have been extremely positive and many women are hoping that we continue to open up additional 210s in various locations in the future,” said Claflin. “I have received formal requests from multiple 210s, as well as many other cutters that are able to configure existing berthing areas to integrate women.”

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