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My Coast Guard
Commentary | March 31, 2023

Celebrating Women’s History Month: An origin story of the first female VNACO of the Auxiliary

By John Saran, AUXPA1, Coast Guard Auxiliary Public Affairs 

Commodore Mary Kirkwood rose through the ranks of Auxiliary leadership over a 20 year-period using her 40 years of nursing experience and her passion for teaching. She made history Nov. 1, 2022, starting a term as the first female Vice National Commodore (VNACO) of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Her success and leadership are an inspiration to us all and will guide future generations of auxiliarists towards leadership. Commodore Kirkwood agreed to do a virtual interview with the Auxiliary’s Public Affairs Directorate in honor of Women’s History Month:

  1. What inspired you to join the Auxiliary in 2002? 

I was drawn to serve in the Auxiliary in the aftermath of the tragic events of 9/11. I had a profound sense of patriotism, especially being a Girl Scout all of my life and wanting to give back throughout my whole life. I felt I had to do something and make the world a little better. We were all hurting in those few months and it motivated me to join and ultimately become boat crew qualified in a few month period. What I came to realize very quickly is that we are the eyes along the vast coast line in the San Francisco Bay area. There are several active duty and reserve units in the area, but they rotate every two years. We are here all the time, and sometimes for our entire lives. We are that consistent presence that can always be called upon. 


  1. How have the first five months of the term gone as the first woman to serve as VNACO in the Auxiliary?

It has been a steep learning curve. My scope of work has expanded more and more. Going from District Commodore to Deputy National Commodore was a big jump and required getting to know the other districts, but I knew the role. The VNACO position is more involved than I thought. But I am enjoying it now more than three months ago when I was just getting my bearings. I really appreciate working with the National Commodore (NACO), Commodore Gus Formato. His insight into inclusion and supporting women in our organization is paramount. I look forward to helping him implement the strategic plan over the next two years. 

  1. What have we done well for women in the Auxiliary as an organization? 

As an organization, we need to focus on inclusion. It is part of our National Commodore’s watch words and is a key imperative in the 2023-2024 national strategic plan recently published by our NACO. We have an Auxiliary representative on the U.S. Coast Guard’s Women’s Leadership Initiative. We are making women more aware of opportunities and will support them as we go forward. We need to make sure they are getting the support they need and clear any obstacles. We cannot tolerate any roadblocks when moving forward in lifting up women and other minority communities.  

  1. I have heard of women-driven and focused training and mentorship opportunities that are being considered by leadership, is that in process?

We are working on something that is in the beginning phases. We are forming an advisory group to help us become more inclusive for women and other minority communities. We do not want to exclude anyone. There is a huge opportunity to improve our mentorship programs at all levels. Our Training Directorate is revising our mentorship program and following in the footsteps of the active duty who recently revised their program. The Commandant is set on trying to build our talent in the Coast Guard. 

  1. What can the Auxiliary do to recruit more women?

Targeted recruiting is the key right now. We need chaplains, so we recruit from theology institutes. We need food service, so we target those culinary schools. We are in need of research to see how other volunteer organizations draw women and then we can tap into that. Perhaps we could find a way to recruit from women’s sorority programs. We also need to focus on retention. 20% of our members are female. We cannot afford to lose our workforce. Mentorship is key. Mentorship can help retain, while targeted recruiting can help supplement areas that we are looking for. 

  1. What is your vision for the Auxiliary in this immediate term and beyond? 

We are going to see some changes in the next two years. Our NACO wants to ensure we are prepared for the future. Inclusion will help strengthen the Auxiliary by ensuring we have talent to support new missions and activities. We are working on a new mentorship program that will help our members become more productive. We also want to make sure our members are ready – we are augmenting our Training Directorate for new missions. We also must adjust leadership training at every level to take on new projects and missions. Recreational boating safety will always be our number one mission, but we are being tasked to do more and need to be ready for the next set of missions. If we don’t expand and extend our skill set, we won’t be able to answer the call from the Coast Guard. I am glad that our Directorates are working with their counterparts at Coast Guard headquarters – finding out what is coming down the line and building the skills and training necessary for it.