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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Feb. 14, 2022

Combining a passion of science with a career of ice breaking 

By Petty Officer 3rd Class Diolanda Caballero, D13 Public Affaris

“I really love the ocean,” said Lt. j.g. Lauren Kowalski, assistant operations officer aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star. “I also love science. I was caught between two roads when I joined the Coast Guard. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do as much science as I did in college when I commissioned.”

As a teenager, Kowalski began looking into the military after her sophomore year of high school; it seemed natural to her as she came from a military family.

Unsurprisingly, Kowalski gravitated to the sea-going services. The Coast Guard’s 11 missions intrigued her and ultimately led to her perusing Officer Candidate School after graduating from the University of Washington in Seattle with her degree in Oceanography.

Upon completing OCS and reporting to a 210-foot medium endurance cutter, Kowalski was able to keep her love for the ocean close but the fire in her love for science burned a little less bright as work on the cutter began.

Despite her belief that she may not be able to do the science she hoped to, Kowalski found her new fire—ice breaking. Kowalski’s sacrifice and dedication to service led her to become the first officer to complete the Coast Guard’s Afloat Icebreaker Training Program and to be the commissioned recipient of the 2021 Hopley Yeaton Superior Cutterman Award.

As an ensign aboard Coast Guard Cutter Dependable located in Virginia Beach, Va., Kowalski learned that although law enforcement was interesting, it wasn’t for her. One day, she learned about Coast Guard Cutter Healy and the purpose Healy served. She was ecstatic. The medium ice breaker facilitated scientific research and became the answer to her wanting to combine both her career in the Coast Guard and her love for science.

Kowalski immediately made it known to her command that she was interested in ice breaking. To her surprise, her operations officer, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Litts, knew the commanding officer of Coast Guard Cutter Katmai Bay and allowed Kowalski to temporarily embed with the cutter.

Her initial exposure to ice breaking on the Katmai Bay ignited a flame.

“I was in such awe,” said Kowalski. “Ice breaking is just so incredible! I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.”

Upon her return to Dependable, Kowalski continued to make it clear that she wanted to be on the Healy. Unfortunately, she was unable to take the assignment during her rotation year, but a different opportunity arose.

Kowalski was picked up for the Afloat Icebreaker Training Program (AITP), which allowed her to go on several of the Coast Guard’s ice breaking platforms. She was the second officer to be picked up in the program’s history and the first to complete it. The mission of the AITP is to create more ice pilots as the Coast Guard begins to recapitalize its polar icebreaker fleet.

In 2020-2021, Kowalski was constantly underway. She traveled aboard Coast Guard Cutters Mackinaw, Healy, and Polar Star. Kowalski quickly learned the ropes to breaking ice on each platform. However, it was on Polar Star where she was granted the opportunity to embed with Her Majesty’s Ship Protector, a Royal British Navy icebreaker.

The opportunity arose near the end of Polar Star’s Arctic West Winter 2021 deployment. Polar Star hosted two Royal British Naval officers during the deployment. The captain of the Protector extended an invitation to the Polar Star to take a crewmember with them on their next deployment. Kowalski pushed herself into taking the opportunity and with the help of the Polar Star’s commanding officer, she deployed with Protector within weeks.

Kowalski spent two months aboard Protector, easily integrating with the crew and was rapt with the amount of confidence the Protector crew had in her. While aboard she stood watch and did just as much icebreaking as she did on the Coast Guard’s platforms.

Within a week of her return from the Protector, she took over as the assistant operations officer aboard Polar Star and hit the ground running.

She was away from home for nearly 300 days, and her sacrifice did not go unnoticed. She was selected as the commissioned Superior Cutterman of the Year. The selection panel for the Hopley Yeaton award comprised 61 active duty and retired permanent cuttermen with a combined 604 years of sea time. Kowalski’s nomination cites her professionalism, dedication to the Polar Star’s crew, and superior efforts during her time in AITP.

“I feel extremely humbled,” said Kowalski. “I felt as if I was too junior [in rank] to receive such an award.”

Professionally and personally, Kowalski’s experience in AITP made her an improved mentor and leader. Today, Kowalski continues to lead with the same poise and compassion noted in her nomination. She remains dedicated to the crew of Polar Star as a victim’s advocate and a Leadership Diversity Advisory Counsel chair and mentor.

In Kowalski’s eyes, she owes her success to a supportive command and a great support system at home. Her philosophy is to be there for her people the same way her commands have always been for her.

In the future, Kowalski aims to complete a master’s degree in Antarctic Studies. She hopes to one day serve in the Coast Guard’s Oceanography billet and continue supporting the Coast Guard’s Antarctic mission.

“I didn’t ask for opportunities,” said Kowalski. “They just presented themselves or were presented to me because of me expressing interest. If there are things you want to do in the Coast Guard, do not be afraid to ask. Find what lights your fire the way ice breaking lights mine.”