Adm. Linda L. Fagan will break one of the Army’s last glass ceilings on Wednesday when she is sworn in as Commander of the Coast Guard and becomes the first female officer to lead a branch of the United States Armed Forces.
Admiral Fagan, who was previously the service’s second-in-command, graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1985, in only the sixth class that included women. She steadily rose through the ranks, serving at sea on an icebreaker and ashore as a Marine Safety Officer.
It wasn’t until much later in her career that she thought becoming a commander might even be possible.
“A lot of people were like, ‘Oh yeah, I knew she was going to be Admiral,’ but I didn’t think about it,” Admiral Fagan recalled. “Even when I was first selected as Admiral, you don’t think about it, and then all of a sudden you look around and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, okay, I guess that’s ‘is possible.’ ”
“When I look at the organization, at least a few years ago, there wasn’t a ton of diversity,” Admiral Fagan said in an interview. “Even we still don’t have the diversity we need in the senior management ranks. But looking back, it’s all there and to come – certainly for women, and we still need to increase our numbers of underrepresented minority men.
She will be the 27th commander of the service, which has its roots in the creation of the Revenue Cutter Service shortly after the Revolutionary War, and merged with the US Life-Saving Service to become the Coast Guard in 1915.
At Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington last week, Admiral Fagan underscored the historic significance of her achievement as she walked through a room filled with portraits of her predecessors. She stopped in front of a painting of Admiral Owen W. Siler, the service’s 15th commander, in the 1970s.
“He was the commander when the service academies were first integrated,” Admiral Fagan said.
Years later, Admiral Siler’s wife approached her at an event and said, “I just want to tell you how proud Si and I are of women,” Admiral Fagan recalled .
When she entered the academy, the Coast Guard no longer had policies that barred women from serving in a particular role or capacity, unlike other branches of the military at the time. But his fleet needed to be upgraded with sleeping places and sanitary facilities for women. Larger ships like icebreakers had many cabins and bathrooms for officers, areas of which could be assigned immediately to female officers. The construction of permanent facilities for the women enlisted on these ships, as well as on the smaller cutters, would take time.
Over the years, female officers of Admiral Fagan’s generation began to take command of small cutters at sea and progress.
Once women had equal opportunities at sea, the main obstacle to gaining the office of commanding officer was the number of years it took to gain enough experience for the position. When Admiral Fagan takes her place among the Chiefs of Staff, she will have served roughly the same time as any of those seated around her.
Pentagon leadership positions were dominated by white men until recently. Adm. Michelle Howard, now retired, in 2014 became the first woman to achieve four-star rank in the Navy. General Charles Q. Brown Jr., who heads the Air Force, is the first black officer to serve as chief of service, and Lloyd J. Austin III, the Secretary of Defense, is the first black man to hold the post. Lt. Gen. Michael E. Langley, recently appointed to head U.S. Africa Command, will become the first black four-star Marine Corps officer if confirmed by the Senate.
“We are moving past ‘firsts’,” Admiral Fagan said. “I hope soon we will talk about the second female commander and the third female commander, and we will have a black commander.”
“We as a service need to reflect the society we serve, and it’s important to create opportunities for everyone in the service,” she added.
According to the Coast Guard, about 40% of the incoming class at its academy in New London, Conn., will be women, while force-wide only 15% of personnel are women.
Admiral Fagan can count on one hand the number of women who have become active duty Admirals in the Coast Guard, and she knows them by name. Among them is Vice Admiral Vivien S. Crea, who was commissioned from the first class of the Officer Candidate School to include women, attained a three-star rank and, like Admiral Fagan, was Vice Commander of the Coast Guard, from 2006. to 2009.
One of the last major gender barriers in the armed forces was removed in 2015, when the Obama administration dropped policies that prevented women from serving in combat roles.
“Diverse work teams simply outperform non-diverse work teams,” Admiral Fagan said. “We need to ensure that there are no barriers to service for those who are service-minded and meet service requirements.”
Admiral Fagan said that by the time one of his daughters entered the service, women were represented in most senior positions. His daughter is now a lieutenant.
As commander, Admiral Fagan said she would work to overhaul the service’s ‘up or out’ system, in which people are usually promoted or eventually forced out – a practice she said was common in all branches of the armed forces. One of its aims will be to find ways to allow coastguards to take time off from service in the middle of their career, for example when deciding to start a family.
She described the issue as gender neutral. “Policies that make it easier to retain women at this middle level make it easier to retain men at this stage,” she said.
Her first tour as an Ensign brought her to Seattle for a mission aboard an icebreaker, the Polar Star. She was the only woman to serve on the ship during her two-year tour, during which she qualified for one of the service’s most dangerous jobs: digging channels through hard-packed sea ice. near the North and South Poles.
His first tour commander on the Polar Star, Wade Moncrief, plans to be in the audience for his ceremony on Wednesday.
“I’m very excited about this,” Mr. Moncrief, 81, said in an interview, noting that Admiral Fagan had skillfully served in some of the toughest conditions a sailor could face.
“I think it all went pretty well,” he said of his ship’s integration in 1985 with his arrival. “I think the crew understood what it was about, that she was an officer like the others and that she had the same authority, and they operated that way.”
Mr Moncrief, who was commissioned in 1962 and retired as captain in 1988, kept in touch with his former shipmate and attended an earlier ceremony when Admiral Fagan took command Coast Guard Pacific Region.
“You know women wouldn’t get these jobs if they weren’t performing well and if they weren’t qualified for it,” he said. “So yeah, they’re breaking the ceiling, but they’ve earned it.”