The Coast Guard recognizes two hardworking volunteers as the Coast Guard’s Wanda Allen-Yearout Ombudsman of the Year Award for 2019. Dahna Simmons and Jenna Hall distinguished themselves out of the service’s 350 ombudsman throughout the service, going above and beyond assisting fellow spouses and families during the past year. This award recognizes their outstanding contributions during a difficult 2019 as our Coast Guard families navigated an unprecedented combination of natural disasters, financial uncertainty during the government shutdown, deployments, and the COVID-19 pandemic.“Ombudsman” is a term we use a lot in the Coast Guard without much explanation. An ombudsman is usually a spouse of a member at a unit who volunteers for the position. Once the unit’s commanding officer approves the role, that person becomes a vital official communication channel providing information to family members.
Ombudsmen also help Coast Guard families when they first report to the unit, connecting them with childcare, employment for spouses, housing, and more. In times of crisis, as demonstrated in 2019, a unit’s ombudsman is a first line resource for a unit’s family when the service member is called for duty.
Dahna Simmons – Coast Guard Station Grand Isle and U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sailfish
Dahna Simmons didn’t realize she was on the phone with the Commandant of the Coast Guard. As the Station Grand Isle Ombudsman, Simmons arrived at the station, walking into what she thought was a routine meeting with unit leadership to discuss family concerns. Her meetings with uniformed folks at the station might be about anything from hurricane preparations to the new playground being built for base housing residents at the unit in Grand Isle, Louisiana. When the commanding officer handed her the phone, the voices on the other end of the line -- Commandant Karl Schultz and Master Chief Jason Vanderhaden -- told her she had been selected as one of two 2019 Wanda Allen-Yearout Ombudsman of the Year Award recipients.
Simmons wrapped up the call, hung up the phone, turned to her husband Petty Officer 1st Class Scott Simmons, and the galley that had filled with shipmates, and in a state of pleasant surprise asked, “What just happened?”
Anyone who knows Simmons’ work as an ombudsman would not be surprised by the accolades.
She stepped into the role during the longest government shutdown and, when faced with a withheld pay period, immediately established weekly town hall meetings with families to provide updates and troubleshoot concerns. Recognizing that a drive to the local big-box grocery store could require more than an hour plus serious fuel costs, Simmons organized food donations to form a take-what-you-need pantry of essentials. She worked with base leadership to open dining facilities for the folks stationed in the remote area of Louisiana sometimes referred to as “the end of the world.”
When a summer heatwave exacerbated a natural gas leak in the housing on base, residents were forced to shut off their gas-powered appliances. Simmons spent the next month relaying repair updates to families, and coordinated rotating warm shower locations for children who lived on base. Her creative problem solving didn’t stop there, as she advocated directly with Base New Orleans to obtain temporary electric stovetops so families could avoid the burdensome costs of dining out.
The priorities of the ombudsman is as unique as the duty station where they serve. While the volunteer position is provided ample training, it’s up to the individual to decide what areas and issues they need to focus on. Simmons was hesitant to take on the role at first, concerned she might do something wrong or outside the norm, but quickly realized that each ombudsman can be unique in their approach.
“We’re the Coast Guard, we like to be prepared,” Simmons said. “I’m the information person. Anything that’s going on, evacuations, base housing problems, I’m the one that would have the details to pass along about that.”
Jenna Hall - Sector and Station LA-Long Beach and 11 subunits
“Ombudsmen are the best kept secret in the Coast Guard,” said Jenna Hall, the Ombudsman for Sector and Station LA-Long Beach and its 11 subunits. Reflecting on more than three years and hundreds of hours she has volunteered while stationed in California, “we are empowering others when we are offering resources available to them.”
To pass on information ranging from casual to critical, ombudsmen receive opportunities to network and training on the topics that might be useful to military families. Regional support staff coordinate virtual and in-person opportunities to learn about topics like financial well-being, mental health, resilience, changes to Tricare and benefits. Then the unit ombudsman push that information out to their unit families.
Even though most Coast Guard missions are on or near the water, Hall’s crisis work has centered on California wildfires and the resulting evacuations. During an especially intense wildfire season, Hall relayed critical disaster recovery information from FEMA to affected crews and their families. Leveraging a directory of families that she sorted down to the zip code, Hall notified families of evacuation requirements based on their location and made sure every family understood their evacuation plan, prepared their supplies, and adhered to government guidelines.
“On the blue suit side, they focus on going out and doing the rescuing,” Hall refers to her uniformed colleagues. “It’s the ombudsman’s job to offer a line to and sometimes rescue the families when they’re in over their heads.”
Not all of the work of an ombudsman is disaster and crisis-related. Hall often shared community events and ways to connect with the Los Angeles military community. When Hall wasn’t attending All Hands or Morning Quarters meetings with leadership, she volunteered with the Valor Games, Wreaths Across America, and the East Bay Coast Guard Spouses Club. Hall encourages anybody thinking about volunteering, to go for it – you’ll be helping improve the lives of fellow families, “As ombudsman, we are building a community; both a Coast Guard community and the community at large.”