Three Coast Guard members and one civilian employee have earned the Coast Guard’s 2022 LATINA Style Distinguished Military Service Award for their outstanding service, leadership, accomplishment, and commitment to the mission and their community during the award period of June 2021 to June 2022. The recipients are:
- Lt. Maria McElhaney, Executive Officer, Marine Safety Unit (MSU) Cleveland
- Ensign Olivia Gonzalez, deck watch officer, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Dauntless
- Petty Officer 2nd Class Johanna Polanco-Garcia, storekeeper division, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba
- Sheyla Matos, naval architect, Offshore Patrol Cutter Project Resident Office (OPC PRO).
LATINA Style bestowed each awardee with this honor to recognize their enduring commitment to influencing and enhancing the role of Hispanic and Latino Americans throughout the Coast Guard. LATINA Style annually honors the accomplishments of women serving in the armed forces to coincide with Hispanic Heritage Month, which is observed annually from Sep. 15 to Oct. 15.
About the awardees:
Lt. Maria McElhaney
A first-generation American, McElhaney moved to the United States from Alcala de Henares, Spain in 2007 and joined the Coast Guard in 2008. McElhaney’s heritage, experiences, and perspectives as a non-native shaped her Coast Guard career.
“My heritage is a crucial part of my experience in the Coast Guard, from how I communicate with others as an English as a Second Language person, to my ability to thrive in team settings and the ‘work families’ assigned to me when I transfer from unit to unit,” McElhaney stated. “Coming from a more collectivist culture, the team-oriented nature of the Coast Guard was a great fit for me, so in many ways I think my heritage has helped me succeed in the organization.”
Prior to joining the Coast Guard, McElhaney was teaching Spanish at a middle school located on a military base in Maryland. Her background in education drew her towards the Coast Guard’s Partnership in Education (PIE) program, which enhances educational opportunities and raises awareness about the Service in local communities. She reinvigorated MSU Cleveland’s relationship with a local high school to help bring underrepresented people to the waterfront and expose them to potential careers in Coast Guard.
During the award period, McElhaney also formed a strong and distinctive relationship with Recruiting Office Cleveland, where she leveraged her unique background to help build recruitment strategies that focused on the successes of underrepresented members in the Coast Guard and implemented ways to eliminate barriers to recruitment. Her continued efforts have not only aided the service’s recruitment, but have built a lasting home for herself within the Coast Guard.
“For me, the most important question is not what led me to join to the service, but what led me to stay all these years? And that answer is without a doubt our people and the feeling of belonging to the organization and the country that the Coast Guard has provided me.”
Ensign Olivia Gonzalez
Gonzalez’s family immigrated to the United States from El Salvador before she was born. She became interested in the Coast Guard growing up in New London County because her family participated in the Coast Guard Academy’s sponsor family program where they sponsored a Honduran International Cadet. The program pairs local volunteer families with cadets to provide a home away from home and help make cadets’ integration into Academy life easier and more effective.
“Going onto campus to support my Sponsor Sister and take part in different Coast Guard Academy events, I always appreciated the kindness and close-knit comradery of the cadets,” Gonzalez stated. “I knew I wanted to be a part of a community like that,” she added. Gonzalez followed her dream and was accepted to the Coast Guard Academy in 2018 and graduated this year in 2022.
During the award period, Gonzalez served as the regimental workplace climate officer (RWCO) at the Coast Guard Academy, where she mentored cadets in achieving success and modeled the way for them to embrace diversity and inclusion within the Corps of Cadets. Gonzalez brought her peers together through her involvement and leadership in several affinity groups while also serving as a volunteer supporting New London's Hispanic and Latin American communities. Gonzalez continually strives to be a strong role model for others, and to inspire young girls to reach dreams they might otherwise not think possible.
“I am so thankful for my family, who raised me to be proud of my heritage and sacrificed so much to see my siblings and me succeed. Growing up, I rarely saw people who looked like me in professions I aspired to. Now, I hope I can be that role model and mentor to young girls who look like me.”
Petty Officer 2nd Class Johanna Polanco-Garcia
Polanco-Garcia sets the standard as a role model, particularly among Latinas and Hispanic women in the Coast Guard. A native of the Dominican Republic, Polanco Garcia continually demonstrates pride in her heritage.
“Something that means so much to me in regards to my heritage is the opportunity to share my roots with my shipmates,” she stated. “Often times, while on the boat, I would help the cooks with Spanish dishes such as Patacones (fried sweet plantains) and other meals. Having the ability to maintain and represent my upbringing while conducting my duties is something to be grateful for.”
Polanco-Garcia also represents her heritage while conducting her duties by acting as the primary translator aboard Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba. During the award period, she played a critical role in strengthening the Coast Guard’s relationship with key partner nations during a Joint Interagency Task Force South counter-drug patrol. Her contributions directly enhanced strategic engagements to help the United States and regional nations accomplish their shared mission of combating transitional criminal organizations in the Western Hemisphere.
“Being recognized for this award is an honor. It’s not something I was working towards, therefore it took me by surprise,” she stated. “I wanted to serve the country that granted me many opportunities and would give me a way to be shaped into a strong woman.”
Matos, a naval architect at the OPC PRO, was recognized during the award period for exceptional mentoring and promoting self-improvement among coworkers, future leaders, and students in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) community. A member of Great Minds in STEM, Matos assisted Hispanic students in comprehending engineering theory and gaining experience in practical application. She conveyed appreciation for the engineering profession and pride in her Latina culture through outreach, workplace development, and cultural education.
“It makes me proud to share the innate drive to learn, to teach others, and to fight for opportunities for all to be a part of an equal playing field,” Matos said. “I pray that I am in some form a role model to other STEM Latinas out there, where they dream to be part of the Coast Guard workforce.”
Much of her pride and emphasis on mentorship stem from the family she has come to know within the Coast Guard. For Matos, this community is the driving force behind her commitment to the service. Her ability to carry her personal passion for STEM to other members of her Coast Guard community has allowed her to strengthen the service by inspiring those around her.
“My upbringing was very family oriented, and in the Coast Guard, I feel everyone understands and values the importance of ensuring family is taking care of. Having that feeling of belonging makes me more efficient and loyal to the Coast Guard’s mission.”
Matos contributes her dedication and efforts to the love of her own family, as well.
“For my personal circumstance, this recognition goes to my children, who are the light at the end of the tunnel and who push me to be the best I can be; for whom I strive to be a better person.”
Civil Rights awards like the LATINA Style Distinguished Military Service Award helps to maximize the Coast Guard's overall mission effectiveness through recognition of members' accomplishments and contributions to Civil Rights and Equal Opportunity in minority communities and Partnership in Education (PIE) programs. Anyone within the Coast Guard can nominate someone who is deserving of its Civil Rights awards. Visit the civil rights website for a list of the awards and for more information.