The commandant of the Coast Guard was sworn in on the first of the month, but the 27th Coast Guardsman to hold the position is unlike any of her predecessors.
Adm. Linda Fagan, previously the branch’s second in command, assumed the position on June 1 at a change-of-commandant ceremony in which outgoing head Adm. Karl L. Schultz was relieved of his duties and retired. The ceremony took place at the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C., on a sweltering summer day with a crowd in attendance to witness the first woman to lead a branch of the U.S. armed forces assume the role.
“I’m immensely grateful to the many pioneers who paved the way — pioneers like Adm. [Owen] Siler, Dorothy Stratten, Ida Lewis, Dorothy McShane, Elizebeth Friedman. I’m proud to be a part of this long history of service, dedication, and groundbreaking, and I’m committed to carrying these principles forward,” she said during the ceremony.
The career military woman, having spent nearly 40 years in the service, highlighted Siler, the 15th commandant of the service, who was in the role when the Coast Guard allowed women in the service branch. Despite only meeting him once, she said he “had an outsize impact on me as a person,” and she wore the shoulder boards he wore while he held the position during the ceremony.
“When I look up in the organization, at least just a couple years ago there was not a ton of diversity,” Adm. Fagan said in an interview with the New York Times. “Even still we don’t have the diversity we need at the senior leadership ranks. But as I look back, it’s all there and coming — certainly for women, and we still need to increase our number of underrepresented minority males.”
President Joe Biden also spoke at the event, congratulating Fagan on her new role while celebrating the historic nature of her appointment to the force, which has existed for more than 230 years.
“This moment of acceleration of global challenges and hybrid threats that don’t stop at any border, there’s no one more qualified to lead the proud women and men of the Coast Guard, and she will also be the first woman to serve as commandant of the Coast Guard — the first woman to lead any branch of the United States Armed Forces. And it’s about time,” he said. “Look, with her trailblazing career, Adm. Fagan shows that young people, young people entering service, that we mean it when we say there are no doors — no doors closed to women.”
Before taking on the new role, Fagan served as the branch’s vice commandant for roughly a year, and before that, she was commander of the Coast Guard Pacific Area, overseeing operations from the Rocky Mountains to the waters off the east coast of Africa.
Her journey in the Coast Guard demonstrates the progression of the acceptance and admittance of women in the services. When she graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1985, she was in just the sixth class that included women, per the New York Times. She enrolled in the academy the year after the first class that included women had graduated.
Nearly four decades later, Fagan’s daughter, a lieutenant in the military, is part of a military in which women hold senior positions.
“And, I might add, that includes her daughter, Coast Guard Lt. Aileen Fagan. Now that you’re — I thoroughly embarrassed you, haven’t I? Because you look like my son used to look when they’d say, ‘Vice President Biden and his son, Major Biden.’ And he’d go, ‘Oh, dad,'” the president continued. “Every little kid growing up today who dreams of serving their country will know that this is what an admiral and a service chief of the United States Armed Forces looks like. I mean it sincerely. It matters.”
Historically, military leadership has predominantly comprised white males, but that has changed in recent years.
In 2014, now-retired Navy Adm. Michelle Howard became the first woman to reach the four-star rank, while Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., who currently leads the Air Force, is the first black officer to become a service chief. Lloyd Austin is also the first black man to be secretary of defense, and Lt. Gen. Michael Langley, recently nominated to lead U.S. Africa Command, would become the first black four-star Marine Corps officer if confirmed by the Senate.
“We’re getting past the ‘firsts,'” Fagan told the New York Times. “I hope sometime soon we’re talking about the second female commandant and the third female commandant, and that we’ll have a Black male commandant. We, as a service, need to reflect the society that we serve, and creating opportunity for everyone in the service is important.”