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Coast Guard Honors Centenarian, Its First Woman Commissioned Officer

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., March 26, 2004 – World War II veteran Dorothy Constance Stratton wasn't able to attend a March 24 birthday celebration the Coast Guard hosted in her honor at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial here.

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Vice Adm. Thomas J. Barrett, vice commandant of the Coast Guard, said the accomplishments of women in the Coast Guard transcend women's issues. Barrett was the keynote speaker at the special Women's History Month observance March 24 in Arlington, Va., that honored the Coast Guard's first woman commissioned officer on her 105th birthday. Photo by Rudi Williams

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But Stratton had the perfect excuse. It was her 105th birthday, and the centenarian wasn't able to make the more than 650-mile trip from West Lafayette, Ind.

Instead, Stratton sent a videotape full of memories of her years as the first director of the World War II Coast Guard Women's Reserve that was nicknamed, SPARs, an acronym representing the Coast Guard motto, "Semper Paratus Always Ready."

The video was played on the memorial's large silver screen during the Coast Guard Women's Leadership Association- hosted Women's History Month observance. Several former SPARs who live in the Washington metropolitan area attended Stratton's 105th birthday celebration.

The keynote speaker was Vice Adm. Thomas J. Barrett, vice commandant of the Coast Guard, who told the audience about Stratton's historic service to the nation and its importance to today's women in the military.

Barrett read the synopsis of Stratton's accomplishments that was read into the Congressional Record on her birthday. It said in part that Stratton "is a visionary leader and patriot whose service to the United States can't be measured. She was born on March 24, 1899, in Brookfield, Mo. She earned a bachelor's degree from Ottawa University in 1924 and continued her education at the University of Chicago where she earned her (doctorate) in 1932 in personnel administration. In 1933, she was appointed dean of women and associate professor of psychology at Purdue University.

"She decided to join the global war effort in 1942 and took a leave of absence to join the Naval Women's Reserve," Barrett continued. "When President Roosevelt established the Coast Guard Women's Reserve on Nov. 23, 1942, then- Lt. Stratton was sworn in as its first director. She became the first woman accepted for service as a commissioned officer in the history of the United States Coast Guard."

The synopsis states that Stratton decided to name the women reservists "SPARs." Barrett said SPARs isn't only the acronym for the Coast Guard motto. "The words are often used to describe support structures, and in Lt. Stratton's words to her commandant, "that's what each member of the Women's Reserve will be."

Barrett said during her four years as director of the SPARs, she recruited and led 10,000 enlisted women and 1,000 commissioned officers. She led the service through World War II and until the SPARs' demobilization was completed on June 30, 1946.

Stratton, who was promoted to captain in two years, went on to serve as director of personnel for the International Monetary Fund and spent 10 years as the national executive director of the Girls Scouts of America.

The synopsis concluded with: "On this, her 105th birthday, I honor Capt. Dorothy Stratton for her service to the United States, the U.S. Coast Guard and its Reserve and for the inspiration and legacy she created for the women of this great nation."

"I see service of women in the Coast Guard, not simply as serve of women but as officers and enlisted members of a superb organization who day in and day out make America what it is," Barrett told the gathering. "The accomplishments of women in the Coast Guard transcended women's issues. Some of the ones who have caught my attention through the years are worth highlighting. They reflect remarkable accomplishment as service members no matter how you cut it, no matter what your gender or race is."

The admiral then pointed out some outstanding accomplishments by women, starting with a difficult rescue at sea by then-Petty Officer 3rd Class Kelly Mogk, the first woman rescue swimmer in the Coast Guard.

"I remember it was an F-4 Phantom jet fighter that went down off the Oregon coast," Barrett said. "The sea state was 16-foot waves with a six-foot wind driven chop. The temperature was 56 degrees. The pilot was severely hypothermic and near death with extensive life-threatening injuries from ejecting at 600 miles per hour."

The pilot, who also was ensnarled in the shrouds of his parachute, was injured so badly that he couldn't communicate with his rescuer, the vice admiral noted.

"Petty Officer Mogk had to dive under repeatedly to free the shrouds from the disabled pilot," Barrett continued. "She put her own life at risk when she removed her gloves in order to expedite the removal of the shrouds, exposing herself to the cold-water effects."

After freeing the pilot, she had to be left alone in the cold sea to wait for a backup helicopter to pick her up. That allowed the recovery helicopter to move the recovered pilot to medical treatment facilities, Barrett said.

"There are not many people of any gender that could do that," he said. "That's what the Coast Guard does. We save about 10 lives a day."

Barrett told of another woman Coast Guard pioneer. He said when now-Capt. Beverly Kelley was an ensign, she had to convince the commandant that she should be allowed to serve at sea. She was persistent and got that first sea- going assignment.

"At the time, the Navy rules were that women couldn't serve in combat," Barrett noted. "But Capt. Kelley persisted, and to her credit, she commanded three Coast Guard cutters three combat vessels of the United States."

The vice admiral then read excerpts from a Bronze Star Medal citation for Lt. Holly R. Harrison. "Due to her uncommon bravery and tactical brilliance, her ship, Aquidneck represented the first line of defense for coalition naval forces providing protection for coalition mine hunters within established mine danger areas in the internal waters of Iraq," Barrett read.

"Her maintenance of a well trained and tactically proficient crew and ship that operated in excess of four times the normal operational tempo in a combat environment was critical to the successful liberation of Iraq," the vice admiral said.

As another example of outstanding performance by a woman, Barrett read part of the citation for the Legion of Merit for Cmdr. Gail P. Kulisch, who was cited for outstanding meritorious service while leading National Strike Force and Environmental Protection Agency response operations from Sept. 11, 2001, to Jan. 18, 2002.

"Within hours of the collapse of the World Trade Center, serving as the activity commander and EPA federal on-scene coordinator, she integrated personnel into an Incident Command System structure that supported New York City's and Federal Emergency Management Agency's operations.

Kulisch was credited with implementing $30 million in response contracts to support collection and removal of debris. She led a 350-person response organization that collected and analyzed more than 8,000 samples, assessed 26 buildings including the U.S. Capitol and Supreme Court, and remediated contaminated offices using technologies never applied before. She also oversaw the tactical teams removing more than 300,000 pieces of potentially contaminated mail and $10 million worth of potentially contaminated art.

When anthrax was discovered in Washington, she was specifically requested by the Capitol Police Board and served as the deputy incident commander of what became a $50 million operation. Even though she was under extraordinary political pressure and physical risk, Barrett said, Kulisch is credited with immediately bringing order to chaos.

"The fact that women had to overcome so much to achieve these things makes the accomplishments even more remarkable," Barrett said. "Women in our service have come an enormously long way. I don't think there are any bounds to what you achieve. We've got remarkable accomplishments on an individual basis. And today there are four women flag officers."

Coast Guard Capt. Dee Norton, mistress of ceremonies at the event, also noted women's accomplishments. "History is peppered with events demonstrating the service and sacrifices made by American women for our nation," she said. "More than 400,000 women served during World War II."

Norton said in November 1942, the first civilian women were hired to serve in secretarial and clerical positions in the Coast Guard. "By the early 1970s, our society had begun to change, and women were accepted in the work force," said Norton, chief of the enlisted personnel management division at the Coast Guard Personnel Command in Arlington, Va.

"With this acceptance came an evolution in the role of women in military service," she noted. In 1972, the first women reserve enlisted basic indoctrination classes were held. Four ratings were opened to women yeoman, storekeeper, radioman and hospital corpsman."

Legislation was enacted in 1973 to end the women's reserve, and women were integrated into active duty service and the Coast Guard Reserve, the captain noted. That same year, the first women were admitted to officer candidate school. By 1974, mixed-gender basic training had begun at Cape May, N.J. In 1976, the first women attended the Coast Guard Academy. In 1978, all officer career fields and enlisted ratings were opened to women.

"Women in the Coast Guard today continue to make progress," Norton noted. "We have mixed-gender crews on all types of Coast Guard vessels. We've seen female ship captains, pilots, rescue swimmers, boat coxswains and command master chiefs. Anywhere a man might serve, so shall a woman."

Norton said Stratton often commented that the SPARs were not allowed to wear the gold officer's shoulder boards, but instead were required to wear shoulder boards that had light blue stripes.

"For her 105th birthday, she asked for a Coast Guard cardigan sweater with officer shoulder boards with gold stripes," Norton said. "The Coast Guard Women's Leadership Association presented her a sweater bearing the gold stripes as a symbol of officer rank."

A photograph of 105-year-old Stratton wearing the sweater and gold shoulder boards was displayed during the ceremony. Visitors marveled at the large sheet cake with blue and white icing displayed in the curved women's memorial gallery, with the words, "Happy 105th birthday, Capt. Stratton."

Contact Author

Vice Adm. Thomas J. Barrett

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Coast Guard SPARs
U.S. Coast Guard

Click photo for screen-resolution imageCapt. Jean Butler, the first woman graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., in 1980, chats with the vice commandant of the Coast Guard, Vice Adm. Thomas J. Barrett, after the Women's History Month celebration March 24 at the Women's Memorial in Arlington, Va. At center is Barrett's military aide, Lt. Joseph Vealencis. Photo by Rudi Williams  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageCmdr. Melissa L. Rivera chats with Vice Adm. Thomas J. Barrett, vice commandant of the Coast Guard, after the Women's History Month celebration March 24 at the Women's Memorial in Arlington, Va. Barrett told the audience of Rivera's heroic actions as a H-60 Jayhawk helicopter pilot to save the lives of crewmen aboard a burning fishing boat in the Bering Sea. Photo by Rudi Williams  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA photograph of 105-year-old Dorothy Stratton who established the Coast Guard Women Reserve which was nickname "SPARs," an acronym representing the Coast Guard motto, "Semper Paratus Always Ready." The centenarian is wearing a Coast Guard cardigan sweater with officer shoulder boards with gold stripes. SPARs were not allowed to wear gold stripes during World War II, and that's all Stratton wanted for her 105th birthday. Photo by Rudi Williams  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe Coast Guard Academy all-women singing cadets, "The Ice Breakers," are led in song by Robert Newton during the Coast Guard's Women's History observance at the Women in Military Service of American Memorial in Arlington, Va., March 24. Photo by Rudi Williams  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageCoast Guard women history makers are, from left, Capt. Jean Butler, who became the first woman graduate from the Coast Guard Academy in 1980; Capt. Beverly Kelley, the first woman commanding officer afloat in 1979 when she took command of the Coast Guard Cutter Cape Newagen; and Capt. Carol A. Rivers, the first woman commanding officer of a port security unit, who participated in Operation Desert Storm. Photo by Rudi Williams  
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