The Coast Guard is the smallest of the military branches. Being a diver in the Coast Guard is rare and being a female diver, even more so. There are only two active female divers in the Coast Guard. It is a small club.
Diver (DV) is a unique job, or rating, in the Coast Guard. For the majority of ratings, you enter the Coast Guard as a seaman apprentice (E-2) or a seaman (E-3), and then you wait for the rating you have chosen to become available. As long as you physically qualify and pass the tests, you can have any rating you’d like.
Being a diver is slightly more complicated. You need to be at least a petty officer 2nd class (E-5), or be in the process of becoming an E-5, to be eligible to apply for dive school. This means that before you become a diver you must have already served in another rating in the Coast Guard. Divers refer to their previous rating as their “legacy rate.”
“The school process to become a diver, they usually put a solicitation out at the beginning of the year,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Kristen Allen, the most recent female diving school graduate. “You put in your application, which includes a PT [physical fitness] test and medical. From the application you submit, they will usually pick 20 to 25 people to go into the week-long screening process in New Jersey, and from there they pick around five to 10 members to go to school.”
The screening process is intense, but it also provides the hopeful divers with an idea of what to expect if they are selected. The screening is held a year before the selectees go to dive school, which gives them time to mentally and physically prepare themselves.
“The ocean doesn’t care if you’re a female,” said Allen. “You have to get into this for the right reasons.”
During the screening, applicants are expected to continuously perform physical fitness exercises to ensure they can survive the five months of dive school, said Petty Officer 1st Class Monique Gilbreath.
Gilbreath graduated from dive school in 2017 and is considered a veteran diver at this stage in her military career. The best part of her job is underwater cutting, she said.
“There is just something special and rewarding about that job,” said Gilbreath. “You go out there and you’re playing with 10 thousand degrees Fahrenheit on the tip of your rod, and you're blasting through steel underwater. And it's challenging. It will keep you on your toes because you can have thousands of pounds of steel above your head and at any point this piling is going to come down, and you may not be able to see.”
Being proficient at your work and aware of your surroundings is of the utmost importance when underwater cutting.
“You just don’t know what's going to happen,” said Gilbreath. “When you’re down there, it’s you and how you’re going to react to the situation that you’re given. So knowing that I am capable, but it’s always a challenge, that is special.”
Gilbreath has done underwater cutting in the Florida Keys and in New Jersey. The jobs, as she describes, can be very different due to the different environments. While in the Florida Keys she worked on reef conservation. When she worked in New Jersey, she cut and pulled metal pilings from the water, making the water safer for boaters.
Rather than having a family crash into these bent-over steel pilings and capsizing, we work to remove them and prevent that, she said.
“For any female [who] wants to do anything, if it seems challenging, don't let that stop you,” said Gilbreath. “When I saw the solicitation for diver school, I couldn't do a single pull up. But if you put in the work and you have the mental strength you can do whatever you want. So don’t let the challenge scare you, let the challenge motivate you and go for it, earn it.”