Adm. Linda L. Fagan will shatter one of the last glass ceilings in the military on Wednesday when she takes the oath as commandant of the Coast Guard and becomes the first female officer to lead a branch of the American armed forces.
Admiral Fagan, who was previously the service’s second in command, graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1985, in just 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 was not until much later in her career that she thought becoming commandant might even be possible.
“A lot of people would say, ‘Oh yeah, I knew she was going to be an admiral,’ but I didn’t think about it,” Admiral Fagan recalled. “Even when I was first selected as an admiral you don’t think about it, and then all of a sudden you look around and you go, ‘Oh yeah, all right, I guess this is possible.’ ”
“When I look up in the organization, at least just a couple years ago there was not a ton of diversity,” Admiral Fagan said in an interview. “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.”
She will be the 27th commandant of the service, which traces its roots back to the creation of the Revenue Cutter Service shortly after the Revolutionary War, and merged with the U.S. Life-Saving Service to become the Coast Guard in 1915.
At Coast Guard headquarters in Washington last week, Admiral Fagan noted the historic significance of her achievement as she walked through a hall filled with portraits of her predecessors. She paused in front of a painting of Adm. Owen W. Siler, the 15th commandant of the service, in the 1970s.
“He was the commandant 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 the women,” Admiral Fagan recalled.
When she entered the academy, the Coast Guard no longer had policies that prevented women from serving in any particular role or capacity, unlike other branches of the military at the time. But its fleet needed to be retrofitted with sleeping accommodations and bathroom facilities for women. Larger ships like icebreakers had numerous staterooms and bathrooms meant for officers, areas of which could be assigned to female officers immediately. Building permanent facilities for enlisted women on those ships, as well as on smaller cutters, would take time.
As the years passed, female officers of Admiral Fagan’s generation began taking command of small cutters at sea and working their way upward.
Once women had equal opportunities at sea, the main obstacle to reaching the commandant’s office was the number of years it took to gain enough experience for the job. When Admiral Fagan takes her seat among the Joint Chiefs, she will have served roughly the same amount of time as any of those seated around her.
The Pentagon’s top leadership jobs have been dominated by white men until recently. Adm. Michelle Howard, now retired, in 2014 became the first woman to reach the four-star rank in the Navy. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., who leads the Air Force, is the first Black officer to become a service chief, and Lloyd J. Austin III, the secretary of defense, is the first Black man to serve in that role. Lt. Gen. Michael E. Langley, recently nominated to lead the U.S. Africa Command, will become the first Black four-star Marine Corps officer if confirmed by the Senate.
“We’re getting past the ‘firsts,’” Admiral Fagan said. “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,” she added.
According to the Coast Guard, approximately 40 percent of the incoming class at its academy in New London, Conn., will be women, while across the entire force just 15 percent of personnel are female.
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 Adm. Vivien S. Crea, who was commissioned from the first Officer Candidate School class to include women, rose to a three-star rank, and, like Admiral Fagan, served as vice commandant of the Coast Guard, from 2006 to 2009.
One of the last major gender-based obstacles 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 just outperform nondiverse work teams,” Admiral Fagan said. “We need to ensure that there are no barriers to service for those that are service minded and meet the requirements of service.”
Admiral Fagan said that by the time one of her daughters had entered the service, women were represented in most senior positions. Her daughter is now a lieutenant.
As commandant, Admiral Fagan said she would work to overhaul the service’s “up or out” system, in which people generally are either promoted or eventually forced to leave — a practice that she noted was common in all branches of the armed forces. Among her goals will be finding ways to allow Coast Guardsmen to take time away from the service toward the middle of their careers, such as when they decide to start families.
She described the issue as gender neutral. “Policies that make it easier for women to be retained at that mid-grade point make it easier for men to be retained at that point,” she said.
Her first tour as an ensign took her to Seattle for an assignment 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: cutting channels through packed sea ice near both the North and South Poles.
Her first commanding officer from her tour on the Polar Star, Wade Moncrief, plans to be in the audience at her ceremony on Wednesday.
“I’m pretty excited about it,” Mr. Moncrief, 81, said in an interview, noting that Admiral Fagan had ably served in some of the most challenging conditions a mariner could face.
“I think everything went pretty well,” he said of integrating his ship in 1985 with her arrival. “I think the crew understood what it was about, that she was an officer just like the rest were and had the same authority, and they operated that way.”
Mr. Moncrief, who was commissioned in 1962 and retired as a captain in 1988, stayed in touch with his former shipmate and attended a previous ceremony when Admiral Fagan took command of the Coast Guard’s Pacific Region.
“You know women wouldn’t be getting these jobs if they didn’t perform well and they weren’t qualified for them,” he said. “So yes, they’re breaking the ceiling, but they’ve earned it.”