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Officer's Retirement to be Coast Guard Milestone

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 14, 2004 – When Lt. Cmdr. Rhonda Fleming-Makell, 41, ends her terminal leave June 30, she will step into American history books as the first African-American woman to retire as a commissioned officer in the Coast Guard's 214-year history.

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Coast Guard Rear Adm. Erroll Brown, left, the organization's first African-American flag officer, poses with Lt. Cmdr. William J. Makell Jr. after presenting him a certificate in honor of his wife, Lt. Cmdr. Rhonda Fleming- Makell, right, who is the first African American woman commissioned officer to retire from the Coast Guard. Photo by Rudi Williams

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Tracing its birth back to Aug. 4, 1790, the Coast Guard took 128 years to accept its first women in uniform and another 27 years to accept its first African American women. Fifty-nine years after that, the first African-American woman is retiring from the Coast Guard as a commissioned officer.

In 1918, twin sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker of the Naval Coastal Defense Reserve became the first uniformed women to serve in the Coast Guard. After the Bakers were discharged, except for one lighthouse keeper, women didn't serve in the Coast Guard again until the Women's Reserve of the Coast Guard known as the "SPARs" -- was established in 1942. SPARs is derived from an acronym for the Coast Guard motto, "Semper Paratus, Always Ready."

More than 11,000 SPARs served during World War II. The first five African-American women were accepted in the SPARs in 1945.

During a recent retirement ceremony for Fleming-Makell, Rear Adm. Erroll Brown, the Coast Guard's first African-American flag officer, pointed out that Fleming- Makell "didn't join the Coast Guard to make history; she joined to make a difference."

Brown, assistant commandant of systems for the Coast Guard, said for 20 years Fleming-Makell worked hard to make that difference. "She has moved our organization more toward inclusion," the admiral said. "Through her character, competency and commitment, she moved us through a journey of history, change and a journey of destiny."

During the ceremony at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Va., the guest speaker, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Tracy Slack, said Fleming-Makell paved the way for others. "I'm one of the people she paved the way for," said Slack, chief of the medical administration branch, Maintenance and Logistics Command Atlantic. "What do you say about a woman who has braved unfamiliar territory in an often-hostile work environment? It was no easy thing to integrate the U.S. Coast Guard, and that's what she helped to do. Even though she was invited into the organization, she wasn't always welcomed to the party."

Slack noted that when Fleming-Makell decided as a young college student to become a Coast Guard officer, she didn't know the types of challenges she would face. "She braved boot camp, and braved Officer Candidate School and then she successfully completed assignments, as she was ordered. She really added a splash of feminine color to every unit she went to."

Slack said when given the opportunity, Fleming-Makell helped change the Coast Guard. "Most recently, she developed a program to enhance national security," Slack said. "As we hear in the news daily, that is of the utmost importance for all of us. As program manager for several homeland security initiatives, she successfully implemented the first official Coast Guard K-9 program since World War II."

In early March, one of the newly created K-9 units found material for making improvised explosive devices, including pipe bombs, electric and non-electric blasting caps in a house, thus thwarting potential terrorist acts, Slack noted. As part of the Coast Guard's role in homeland security, explosive-detection and narcotics dog units are trained in techniques for searching ships, vehicles and buildings as well as deploying from boats and helicopters.

"She wasn't there, but she was instrumental in moving the organization forward and saving lives," she said.

But Fleming-Makell was there when a Coast Guard team based in Miami located a large amount of narcotics during a law-enforcement boarding of a vessel.

"Because of Rhonda's actions, drug traffickers were not able to get poison to our children," Slack said. "These things are tremendous, and she should be applauded."

During her 20 year career, Fleming-Makell served as a general law enforcement officer; a human relations counselor; assistant special services officer; deputy officer responding to search and rescue, law enforcement and marine safety emergencies; operations officer at the Coast Guard Command Center in Washington; assistant operations officer in Miami; chief of district personnel; and as a law enforcement specialist at Coast Guard headquarters.

"Since high school, I'd always wanted to join the military, but I changed course and went to college instead," Fleming-Makell said during an interview. "During a career fair, I saw a Coast Guard booth and went over and received good information about the organization."

She said two things impressed her about the Coast Guard it's a humanitarian service and "they didn't try to sell their program by offering me a lot of incentives."

Enlisting in the Coast Guard in 1984, Fleming-Makell took advantage of a special program that allowed students to complete their senior year of college before entering active duty. "However, during the summer, students had to attend boot camp," she noted. "Upon completion, I returned to school to complete my final year."

After graduating from South Carolina State University in Orangeburg with a degree in psychology and a minor in special education, Fleming-Makell was a member of the deck force performing typical seaman's duties before going on to become a 1986 graduate of the Coast Guard Officer Candidate School at Yorktown, Va. She later earned a master's degree in business administration from Arizona's University of Phoenix.

"During that time, there were few African-American women officers -- about 10 in the entire Coast Guard," she noted. "Most of us were placed in jobs like human relations and civil rights, recruiting, public affairs and special services. Although these were good jobs, being placed in them made it difficult to compete with our counterparts when applying for career-enhancing opportunities such as operational assignments.

"Products were very hard to get at the exchange, such as stockings for women of color, cosmetics and hair products," she said. "Issues such as these were important, because all military members were evaluated on appearance."

She eventually moved into career-enhancing jobs. Her last assignment was as a law enforcement specialist within the Coast Guard's Office of Law Enforcement. Her responsibilities included developing Coast Guard-wide law enforcement policy, program management for several homeland security initiatives, maritime law enforcement schools, law enforcement councils and maintenance of a $1 million budget.

Four generations of her family attended the retirement ceremony at the women's memorial, including her uncle Roscoe Smith, a World War II Army veteran, and in her husband's line, Margaret Anderson, 87, the great-grandmother of her children. Her father, retired history teacher William G. Fleming, and her mother, Earlene D. Reed, who retired from the banking business, also were in the audience. Her elder business-manager sister, Ulanda V. Sanders, chose not to serve in the military.

Also present was her husband, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. William J. Makell Jr., and their three children: Branden, 14, William III, 6, and Selena, 4. "I met my husband during Eclipse weekend at the Coast Guard Academy in April 1992, and we were married in 1997," Fleming-Makell said. Her husband works in the Office of Command and Control Architecture (Command, Control, Computers, Communications, Intelligence, Sensors and Reconnaissance) at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington.

His father, William J. Makell Sr., served as a Coast Guard steward in the early 1950s. He later worked for the Defense Mapping Agency, becoming the first African- American branch chief of the topographic plate graphic arts department.

Born in Morganton, N.C., on Nov. 26, 1962, Fleming-Makell graduated from Greenville (S.C.) Senior High School, where she participated on the basketball and track and field teams and was a member of the cheerleading squad. She garnered the 1981 most valuable player award in track and field.

A member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Fleming-Makell was honored in the March 1993 edition of Essence magazine in an article titled, "Not Just a Blue Suit."

Fleming-Makell's advice to young African-Americans and other minorities who want to be successful in the Coast Guard is: "Believe in yourself! Stay abreast of all opportunities and apply for them. Assist one another, and be good shipmates."

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Related Sites:
Women's Reserve of the Coast Guard ('SPARs')

Click photo for screen-resolution imageRetiring Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Rhonda Fleming- Makell's husband, Lt. Cmdr. William J. Makell Jr., and their three children, William, 6, Selena, 4, and Branden, 14, were all presented certificates during a retirement ceremony for Fleming-Makell, right, the first African- American woman commissioned officer to retire from the Coast Guard. Photo by Rudi Williams  
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