Aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Wrangell, Lt. Brianna Townsend shared details about how she became Wrangell’s final Coast Guard commanding officer. The 110-foot Island-class patrol boat was commissioned in 1989, three years before Townsend was born. Enforcing security zones and clearing restricted areas was all in a day’s work for the cutter and crew whose mission included supporting U.S. Central Command objectives in the Persian Gulf. The Wrangell was decommissioned March 22, 2022.
“Leading Coast Guardsmen on a cutter is one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had. To see how— in just over a year— a shy non-rate can develop into an extraordinary leader who is about to become a petty officer is amazing,” Townsend said.
Growing up a short distance from the Coast Guard Academy (CGA) in Connecticut, Townsend became aware of the Coast Guard as a young girl and imagined what life at the CGA was like, she said.
According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), about 1900 people apply to the CGA each year, about 375 are accepted. A self-described shy and introverted person, Townsend nonetheless possesses an unshakeable perseverance instilled in her by her mom and dad, so she applied to the CGA despite the odds, she said.
“My parents immigrated to the United States with very little, but they worked hard and created a beautiful life for my two sisters and me. They always encouraged us to go after our goals, no matter how intimidating,” Townsend said.
In 2014, Townsend graduated from the CGA with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. About 22% of undergraduate engineering degrees were awarded to women in the United States, according to 2018 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
“I didn’t see a lot of people [who] looked like me at the academy, but I was assigned a wonderful mentor. Seeing everything she was able to achieve proved to me that the Coast Guard is where I belong. Through programs like the Academy Minority Outreach Program, I’m trying to provide similar mentorship and representation,” Townsend said.
Members of the Academy Minority Outreach Team (AMOT) share some of their educational, career, and personal experiences with prospective and current cadets. Most AMOT mentors are CGA graduates on active duty who identify as members of underrepresented groups within the Coast Guard.
Townsend credits a near-peer mentor and fellow engineer, Lt. Cmdr. Amanda DiPietro, for providing her counsel and coaching.
“Amanda is a super hardworking naval engineer and a mom to three children, yet she’s still available to bounce around ideas, chat, and has helped me set and achieve new goals.”
Another leader Townsend draws inspiration from is Felicia Thomas. In 2009, Thomas became the first African American woman to command a Coast Guard cutter. Townsend was in high school in 2009.
“When I first visualized going afloat as a commanding officer, I thought of her,” Townsend said. “Her hard work and leadership made it possible for me to see my potential and make my dream a reality.”
Lt. Jalle Merritt, the combat systems officer aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Waesche, agrees there is a certain reward and complexity in filling a command position aboard a cutter. “Simple things like a stationary work desk, high-speed internet, and even just going home to regroup after a rough day are luxuries,” Merritt said. “But our ‘office’ window view of ever-changing expanses and the most incredible scenery is unbeatable. Fail, succeed; fail and succeed— all in a day’s work. I hope to share the genuine fulfillment I've found in going to sea, and the skills I've picked up over time, to support and inspire my shipmates. I think that's a long-winded way of saying that leading Coast Guardsmen, especially afloat, is the privilege of a lifetime and incredibly rewarding and fun,” Merritt said.
Merritt is slated to command the Coast Guard Cutter Myrtle Hazard in July 2022.
“There is simply nothing we cannot do. Amidst fatigue, resource challenges, things going on back home, you name it— we always come together and get things done. You just won’t easily find camaraderie like ours, and there's a special pride I take in pouring all I have into the mission and my fellow ‘Coasties’ because of it,” she said.
Merritt is the daughter of a proud Army father and an incredible mother who emigrated from Panama, she said. As a military child, Merritt learned how to be resilient and adaptable early in life, she said. “My mother has this courage and grit to her that I feel so incredibly thankful to have witnessed. Because she could, I can.”
Upon her dad’s retirement from the Army, Merritt and her family settled in El Paso, Texas. With her parents’ support and encouragement from AMOT volunteer Capt. Marcus Canady, she applied to and was admitted at the CGA. Merritt graduated in 2015.
When asked why she chose the Coast Guard, rather than follow in her father’s footsteps, Merritt said— “There is just something special about a ‘small’ service. When we say we know each other, we mean it. While other services strive to have that sense of familiarity, we inherently do. Whether afloat, onshore, or in the air— what we do matters, and the result of our collective effort is visible. If you want a career where you aren’t at a desk most of the time, are encouraged to realize your full potential, get to travel to some amazing places while making history with incredible people along the way, the Coast Guard might just be the right place for you,” she said.
Merritt credits her parents, and several Coast Guard mentors and friends for encouraging her to lean into challenges and commit to personal and professional development.
“Through it all, they have guided me, challenged me, supported me, and often laughed with me as I’ve navigated my way from my cadet days to today. I don’t go it alone,” she said.
For Lt.j.g Courtney Gilliam— slated to command the Coast Guard Cutter Tarpon in June— her mentors, friends, mom and dad helped her commit to staying at the CGA, despite her initial doubts, she said.
Gilliam played rugby during her time at the academy as part of the physical fitness requirement for cadets. As a third-class cadet – her sophomore year – she suffered a catastrophic knee injury playing rugby. Recovery required three surgeries.
“I was in so much pain, physically and emotionally,” Gilliam reflects. “I thought I was ready to quit the academy. I was struggling in chemistry and engineering classes, I couldn’t walk; it was a dark time, but so many people supported me— my academic supervisor, my friends, my family, mentors; even the people at physical therapy encouraged me,” she said. “I underwent a huge growth experience through that setback and believe it helped make me the leader I am today. I learned to push past the limits in my head. I want to encourage and uplift people the way I was encouraged and uplifted.”
With renewed confidence and a mended knee, Gilliam spent the summer on Capitol Hill participating in a legislative internship. She met members of Congress and their staff, researched responses to inquiries, and connected with a new mentor— Lt. Chelsea Sheehy— who was then serving as a Congressional fellow in the U.S. Senate and is a 2014 CGA graduate.
“Her competence at her craft, her kindness, legislative savvy; the respect everyone had for her was inspiring,” Gilliam said of Sheehy. “Now she’s the commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Charles Sexton.”
Gilliam graduated from the academy in 2020 with a Bachelor of Science in Government, Concentration in Politics, Policy and Law. She hopes to continue her career afloat and serve as a Congressional fellow and member of the Coast Guard Judge Advocate General in the future.
Felicia Thomas, the first African American female commanding officer of a Coast Guard cutter, is now a licensed practicing attorney after serving in the Coast Guard. Thomas graduated from the CGA with a Bachelor of Science in Government in 2005.
“I take inspiration from trailblazing women who came before me, and I hope to inspire others with my own achievements,” Gilliam said. “I want high school students to know there are endless career options and fascinating special assignments in the Coast Guard for officers and enlisted. Maybe you’re not the very best at math; maybe you don’t know how to swim. We’ll teach you.”
Gilliam credits several mentors, including Cmdr. John B. McWhite, commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Decisive, for helping her prepare to serve as commanding officer of the Tarpon.
“I am a true believer that people can do anything they set their mind to, but they don’t have to go it alone. We have so many great service members willing and ready to guide younger members through challenging assignments, Gilliam said. “Come see for yourself.”
Academy Minority Outreach Team
Women Afloat Portal Page (CAC and PIN required)
Coast Guard Mentoring Program