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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Nov. 13, 2020

Honor Guard member becomes U.S. Citizen

By Kara Noto, MyCG Staff

From Olympian to boot recruit, from the Coast Guard Ceremonial Honor Guard to U.S. Citizen, Seaman Theresa Michalak is getting pretty good at taking oaths. Originally from Halle in central Germany, Michalak raised her right hand once again, this time to take the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America. 

In addition to working on a graduate degree, training to qualify for “A” school, and holding part time employment, the former competitive swimmer scheduled a naturalization ceremony in late September, quietly adding U.S. citizen to a rapidly expanding list of accomplishments. 

After representing Germany in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, competing in the 200-meter individual medley and four by 200-meter freestyle relay. Following the Olympic performance, Michalak’s talents in the pool were recruited by the University of Florida, where she would go on to swim competitively at the collegiate level. As Michalak progressed closer to graduation, her academic interest in leadership and management had her considering a career in retail. 

It was a chance encounter with a Coast Guard rescue swimmer that resulted in the flip turn to public service. During their conversation about personal goals, Michalak had a realization, “They asked me, ‘You’re swimming for yourself, don’t you want to swim for someone that really needs you?’”  

Michalak dove in to the idea of becoming a rescue swimmer, headfirst. Undeterred by extra layers of administration in the recruiting process for a non-citizen, and proceeded to boot camp in the fall of 2019 with the goal of becoming an aviation survival technician. 

The Ceremonial Honor Guard made their rounds to all of the recruit companies at Training Center Cape May, catching Michalak’s attention, “I wasn’t sure where I would go after boot camp,” Michalak said about the first assignment before “A” school. Interested in representing the poise and professionalism of her Coast Guard colleagues. “When I heard about the Honor Guard, it sounded like a place where I could work on personal goals while preparing to become a rescue swimmer, while also working to accomplish those bigger professional goals of serving something beyond myself.”

In a typical year, the Honor Guard performs an average of 20 ceremonies a week. Members earn at least two specialty qualifications – casket team, color guard, firing party, or drill team – in order to support the funerals and high profile ceremonies at both Arlington National Cemetery and around the country. 

“We can teach people how to drill but we can’t teach human character,” said Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Kimrey, commanding officer of the Honor Guard. Members are recruited from Training Center Cape May and are selected based on military bearing, poise, pride in uniform appearance, and an aptitude for ceremonial drill, “Theresa met the basic criteria [of an Honor Guard member], but she also has an authenticity that is valued as a member of the Honor Guard.” 

Tucked into a quiet suburb outside Washington, DC, Michalak made a new home among good company. In the intensive weeks of uniform preparation, ceremonial marching, and rifle manual of arms that follow boot camp, Michalak came to find shipmates that hail from the Virgin Islands, South America, South Africa, Argentina, and Dominican Republic.  

“You train with them, drill with them, eat with them,” Michalak said about the intensity of training and preparation required of the Honor Guard. “We also help each other in a lot of ways. They become your family.”

The recent global health crisis has limited the number of miles traveled and the size of audiences that gather to watch the high-flying weapon ceremonial routines of the Honor Guard, but hasn’t hindered Michalak’s goal-setting. With citizenship in place, Michalak’s focus turns to the physical and mental preparedness necessary for “A” school. The list of accomplishments may be long and Michalak shows no sign of slowing down as she races toward the goal of becoming a helicopter rescue swimmer. 

“The commitment to this goal has to come before everything else. It’s the first and last thing I think of in my day. It takes priority over the things I want to do as the thing I have to do. It motivates every choice that I make, including the choice to be a member of the Honor Guard”