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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Dec. 15, 2021

Breaking ice, blazing trails

By Daniel Henry, public affairs officer Sector New York

When Chief Petty Officer Ryan Burger, a boatswain mate was installed as the officer-in-charge (OIC) of the 65-foot ice breaking tug (WYTL) Coast Guard Cutter Wire, he received a number of phone calls congratulating him on taking the reins of the venerable-nearly 60 years old-cutter as his first command. One call, though, was a little different from the others. It was Senior Chief Petty Officer Ramona Mason, the Coast Guard’s enlisted women afloat coordinator within the Office of Enlisted Personnel Management (EPM), who had a question for him.

“I got a phone call from Senior Chief Mason and she asked if we could accept a female BM3 (Boatswains Mate Third Class) board, and obviously our answer was yes, of course we can! Then she had a follow up question - can you accept another female board as well? “

At that point Burger paused, and they talked about it for a while; they could have the person come aboard but they didn’t have a rack available for them and would have to find a way to accommodate them.  

His ultimate response?  “Let us see what we can do.”

And with that phone call, question, and response, the idea to convert the available space on the Wire and, subsequently, the other Sector New York 65-foot ice breaking tugs, was born.

Now, women serving on one of the New York 65-foot cutters before was certainly not unheard of. In fact, the immediate previous OIC of the Cutter Line, Senior Chief Petty Officer Holly Campbell, as well as her executive petty officer (XPO), Chief Petty Officer Barbara Elkins, both served together as recently as 2020. 

The difference in this case, though, would be that more junior female personnel would be able to be assigned due to both a Coast Guard wide change in policy regarding assigning women to platforms previously unavailable to them, as well as a commitment from the Coast Guard to arrange a berthing modification to the cutters which would allow them to do so. And with three “C-Class” 65-footers, which all uniquely possess an aft space that had historically been used as an administrative office or berthing for the XPO, Sector New York was the perfect place to turn the idea into a reality.

Mason stated in a previous article about the service publishing a policy change regarding the upcoming berthing conversion. She mentioned that Coast Guard is committed to increasing opportunities to make it feasible for junior female members to gain rated sea-time afloat - learning necessary leadership skills, and earning qualifications on different platforms, in support of their careers, much earlier than had been previously possible.

“We’ve assigned women to these cutters in command cadre positions in the past, however, assigning a third class boatswains mate aboard is new,” Mason said. “For the first time, a woman in a non-command position has received orders to the Coast Guard Cutter Wire.” 

To make the cutter berthing conversion a reality and get females aboard as soon as possible, the Sector Waterways Management team worked with counterparts at headquarters and throughout the service to tackle the challenge of placing two female racks in a space that formerly held a single fold out convertible bunk for use by the XPO.

According to Cmdr. John Singletary, Chief of Waterways Management for Sector New York, and a driving force behind the scenes in ushering the project along, the quick success in getting the first conversion in place on Wire came from folks at all levels putting their heads together to make something happen.

“Normally you go through a process called ‘configuration change for a cutter.’ That’s to change out any kind of berthing or rack modifications; and when you do it (potentially) impacts stability on the cutter. Normally the process would take two to four years because it would be fleet wide. SFLC [Surface Forces Logistics Center] doesn’t do this for two or three cutters; it has to be class wide,” Singletary said. “Altogether, it took around six months for this modification [two additional racks]; and the funding was graciously supplied by headquarters, FORCECOM, and SFLC.”

The real benefit of the push to get the modifications through quickly is watching the new crew members taking advantage of the opportunity that serving aboard the 65 gives them.

Petty Officer Third Class Hailey LaRue, a boatswains mate, who reported to the Wire this past summer, immediately took note of both the greater responsibilities she gained, as well as the broadened learning opportunities she’s been able to take advantage of. She said these opportunities  weren’t available to her on the 87-foot cutter she served aboard as a non-rate in Port Angeles, Wash.

“I knew I wanted to go afloat out of A-school to get rated sea time so that it would help me in my future career,” LaRue said. “It’s smaller and it’s a tight knit crew; there are tons of learning opportunities on both deck and engineering side so you’ll become a better-rounded individual in your [rating]. There are opportunities you’ll get here that you won’t necessarily get on a bigger cutter where you’re focused on a specific area.”

For Singletary, who formerly served as a chief boatswain’s mate and OIC himself, the experience LaRue is gaining is critical for junior women to have expanded future leadership opportunities. 

“Obviously for a boatswain mate (BM), you strive to be an officer in charge. To do that you need the experience, you need the career path of being a coxswain, a deck watch officer, and being in the command cadre as XPO,” Singletary pointed out. “Providing this mixed gender berthing gives those members the opportunity to start their careers out early. They get to lead as a BM3 or a BM2. Eventually that path will lead to XPO positions on the new waterways commerce cutters that are being commissioned in late 2024. We’re hoping we’ll finally get those female BM OICs and XPOs on the river tenders and the construction tenders. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Burger, who has advanced to senior chief petty officer since taking charge of the Wire in May 2021, noted that the speed with which the approval and outfitting took place was perfect in terms of timing; as not only has the initial third class petty officer - who was the catalyst for the conversion - arrived  aboard, but the cutter crew is now awaiting arrival of the second woman billeted at Mason’s request within the next few weeks.

“SFLC was as excited as we were and really put in a system to get it done quickly,” Burger said. “Petty Officer LaRue reported in July and has really hit the ground running; and now that we’ve done the berthing conversion, we are on target for our MK2 [machinery technician second class petty officer] to arrive soon. She is currently serving on the Coast Guard Cutter Robert Goldman as part of Patrol Forces Southwest Asia in Manama, Bahrain.

As Mason noted in an earlier interview, the conversion and outfitting of the 65-foot ice breaking tugs is not the only platform receiving attention as part of the Coast Guard’s commitment to increasing opportunities for women to serve afloat.

“Many of our older cutters were built before women served on afloat platforms in the Coast Guard, at that time there wasn’t a need to consider accommodations for women,” said Mason. “Now that those cutters are being decommissioned and replaced by newer cutters, we are making berthing arrangements for women to serve as part of their permanent party crew.”

To meet this standard, the Coast Guard has also authorized a structural conversion for a minimum of three 140-foot ice-breaking tugs (WTGB). These conversions will create two separate berthing spaces for enlisted members as well as separate heads – or restrooms.

“We know there’s a desire for women to serve within the 140-foot ice-breaking tug fleet, the question is: How much? If there appears to be a strong desire, there could be opportunities to support the conversion of additional hulls,” Mason said.

Whether it’s on 65-foot ice breaking tug, or the 140-foot platform, Sector New York Commander, Capt. Zeita Merchant, is ready to welcome aboard all junior woman who want to get under way - from the shadow of Lady Liberty, to the scenic base of the Catskill Mountains in the Lower Hudson Valley.

“The Coast Guard often brags about being, and we have been, the first service to allow women to serve in every job. But specifically, we need to ensure every platform is open to mixed gender crews,” Merchant said. “We are supporting our junior most female members by giving them the opportunities that were once unavailable to them and I want all junior females from across the entire Coast Guard to look at and take advantage of these opportunities. So this is my pitch to come to Sector New York!”

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