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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Feb. 18, 2021

'Wildly alive' aboard Polar Star

By Petty Officer First Class Cynthia Oldham

The email landed in my inbox near the end of a tiring day. The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star was seeking a public affairs specialist to deploy to the Arctic aboard the icebreaker for its months-long patrol to conduct research, project power and assert U.S. sovereignty in the remote polar region.  

Like a disclaimer, the message explained the patrol would be over the holidays, there would be no port calls and almost no sunlight. Also noted, it would be the first time in decades a Coast Guard asset would navigate a high northern latitude in the winter. Running to my husband, I told him about the opportunity. 

I have a habit of signing myself and my family up to do hard things. A blessing and curse, charging us into uncomfortable situations has led us into countless tribulations but also many pathways to betterment. 

The decision to volunteer to live and work aboard the nation’s sole heavy icebreaker in the harsh, dark, brutally frigid and remote Arctic region – where it was at times hard to believe we were still navigating Earth – revealed in myself a beautiful inner grit and reaffirmed the durability of my family. 
Family durability is key to professional success. The notion that a Coast Guard member who has children can find lasting work/life balance is fiction - just as any leveling of a proverbial scale is always a fleeting success. 

Despite this, I try not to let a scale weigh me down. The author Glennon Doyle suggests that challenging ourselves to do hard things might be the best way we can inspire our own children to greatness: She wrote “What a terrible burden for children to bear – to know they are the reason their mother stopped living.”

For this challenge, it was only with my husband’s support and sacrifice I found the bravery to leave my children and let my scale list toward 80 days at sea. 

The Beautiful Things 

There is great beauty in shared experience and, on Arctic West Winter 21, some of the best memories were made on the darkest days. 

It’s not typical for a crew to be underway for months and endure having no regular port calls, reliable connectivity, or sun. Together we found joy in meals, candid moments of comradery, weekly mess deck trivia where passionate teams spurred spirited rivalries, and mission-centric successes.

When we tediously crunched and rammed the Polar Star through dense sea ice to navigate farther north in the winter than any U.S. surface asset in history, the feat held meaning not only on the basis of accomplishment, but for the sacrifice and commitment we each endured to achieve it.

Thinking back to the beginning of the deployment, we faced 20-foot swells in the Bering Sea. 

For several days and nights, the ship tossed and turned like a bathtub toy. More of the crew was sick than not – and crashes, bangs and shouting echoed from staterooms and passageways. I imagine, that in decades to come, when we each reflect on and share Arctic West Winter 21 sea stories, those absolutely miserable days of the patrol will serve as a reason to smile. 

Finally, the most beautiful moments of the patrol were found in the sky. I will never again look up at night without gratitude for having experienced the shocking magnificence of Arctic stars. 

The Hard Things

It was incredibly difficult to be away from my family for months, but especially over the holidays. There are only a handful of magical years for parents to absorb the joyful innocence children bring to the holiday season. From way up near where Santa lives, I signed-up to use a satellite phone for a 30-minute block on Christmas morning. Shivering and alone on the dark flight deck, I cried and smiled listening to my son tell me with precious excitement what Santa brought him. It was by far the hardest, most lonely day of the patrol.  

Also difficult is that there are not enough women serving on the Polar Star. For the 18 of us who served on the Arctic crew of more than 130, senior female mentorship was scarce. Most of us are temporarily assigned. Of the permanent crew, the cutter’s most senior ranking woman is a junior officer. In the fleet’s largest afloat Chief’s Mess, only one woman wears an anchor. 

It can be tough for women, especially those new to the service, to feel equal when their complement in the crew is very much inferior. While the Polar Star’s command is superb, our rising sailors need to consistently see women serving at sea in senior enlisted and officer positions. 

In the future, strategically assigning senior ranking women to leadership roles at units like the Polar Star will empower and reveal to our members that women are valued, respected and can thrive in sea-going billets. 

Once in a Lifetime

For almost 80 dark winter days and nights Polar Star sailors explored the Arctic. When the crew lands back in Seattle Saturday, temporary members will depart to their home units and scientists and researchers will return to their shore-side studies. Even among the permanent crew, shipmates will transfer to their next units and new shipmates will report aboard, poised for the adventure of the next mission. 

I will reunite with my family feeling wildly alive, and savor the kisses and vice-grip hugs I know await me. 

It’s a hard thing to fathom, after months of solidarity, that Polar Star’s Arctic West Winter 21 crew will scatter to never reunite again. Beautiful though, is knowing we will each go our separate ways forever linked by our shared memories as Arctic explorers who frolicked on the frozen Bering Sea.