Final Say: Admiral Sandra Stosz
Admiral Sandra Stosz, 52, is the superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, the first woman to command a U.S. service academy. She also is the first woman to command a Coast Guard cutter, and has been awarded three Legion of Merit medals. She resides on campus in New London.
So do you think you’ve broken that old superstition about women being bad luck on ships?
[laughs] There is that old superstition. It’s interesting from the very first time that I went out to sea on a ship in the days when we had just graduated third class of women [from the USCGA], I never really encountered that of all things because I was the first woman on a number of my ships, but I never heard anyone say, “Oh, that woman’s just going to be ‘a Jonah.’” That, I think, was a stereotype way back in the day when ship captains brought their wives on board, and I didn’t realize this until doing a little more maritime reading. I believe back in the days of the British Royal Navy and even American whaling ships, it wasn’t uncommon for the captains of these vessels to bring their wives on board for these long voyages that would last a year or two. I think that was the case when they were considered “a Jonah”—they weren’t working members of the crew. I never faced that. Coming on board as part of the crew with an expected set of duties and expected sets of performance standards, I don’t the crew looked at a woman on board as bad luck or “a Jonah.”
You’ve attained a lot of firsts—first female commander of a coast guard cutter, first female flag officer and first female superintendent of a U.S. service academy—does that say more about those institutions or you?
It says more about the Coast Guard. Me, coming in as one of the first women who were able to enter the service academies after the law was changed in 1975 allowing women to enter, the first class of women came in 1976, and I came in as part of the third class in 1978, and therefore I was able to ride this wave of “firsts.” It’s funny because earlier in my career I didn’t have the situational awareness to think about the bigger picture, so I just thought I’d “do my duty” as being the first one here, the first one there, the first female, and then I thought I’d outrun it because I would’ve done my duty with a number of firsts, but then it kind of occurred to me as a mid-grade officer that I wasn’t going to outrun this because I was on the front end and I was going to keep being one of the first while I was in because you promote up according to time and grade in the military, so I was going to be on the front end of the wave for all those firsts for my whole career. It’s definitely the Coast Guard that gave women the opportunities to serve on ships at sea. Early on, we had access but we never had a combat-exclusion law like the Navy did, for instance, and that’s because we fall under Title XIV of the United States Code versus Title X, where there are exclusions written into law. As you might know, the Coast Guard used to be in the Department of Transportation up until 2003 when it came over to Homeland Security, but either way, it’s never been part of DOD [Department of Defense]. We’ve always had a different title of the code, that despite we have armed combat vessels, like our major cutters that are somewhat like a small frigate. We’ve never had a combat-exclusion rule, so I credit my success in my firsts to the Coast Guard making sure all the doors were open and that I had a chance to walk through.
What have been the challenges of coming up through and serving in an organization that has been predominantly male?
You know, I actually look at it as opportunities, not challenges. Maybe that’s just a way that I approach life, and why I’ve been successful—because I look at things as an opportunity not a challenge. I think, honestly and truly, you can’t undervalue the role of your parents in your early learning and how you’re shaped. By the time I was 12 years old, I knew how to throw a hunting knife and how to shoot a .22 rifle and 20-gauge shotgun. My dad would take us out—I was raised with three brothers. We were outdoorsy, we learned how to shoot and use knives and stuff like that—all the boy stuff, when I was very, very young. I was a tomboy—I had three brothers, so what choice did I have? The TV shows at night were going to be John Wayne or Clint Eastwood no matter what because I was outvoted three-to-one. [laughs] So I just adapted. I thought being part of a mostly male environment, having been raised with three brothers, and doing boy stuff all my life, wasn’t any different than what I was used to. Certainly, some people at the academy, when women were first brought in, they looked at it as different. I saw it as an opportunity as how your gender can be an advantage to you in a group of mostly men, and I’ve got a number of stories about that as I got to be an officer.
Such as . . .
Well, I was the first woman assigned to a law-enforcement vessel—a medium endurance cutter, and I was the only woman assigned of about 50 crew members, and I was also the ops officer, which is third in command after the captain and the executive officer, and I was senior boarding officer. I had been to school, had the combat, law-enforcement gear, the guns and the whole nine yards. This was in the Pacific Northwest, out of Eureka, Calif., and people said, “This is going to be hard, going out there to enforce fishing and drug laws on the fishing fleets out here when they’re all men, it’s a very traditional part of the country, and they’re not going to be receptive to a woman coming on board in a role of authority.” I kind of braced myself for that, and I didn’t know what to expect. But when I started doing the boardings as senior boarding officer, I found that contrary to that, men who had been at sea a long time were all too happy to see that the person leading the team on board was a young woman. The first question you ask when you go on board is for officer safety to have the crew of the boat being boarded to show you where their weapons are. So you can imagine a guy going aboard a fishing boat and asking the captain of the boat, “Can I see your guns?” It’s a little bit of contest, you know, so to speak. It’s a man asking to see another man’s gun. As opposed to when I come on board and say, “Hey, I’d like to see your weapons first.” And they’d lay out all the guns and be like, “What else can we show you?” “Well, now you can show me your fish, and then you can show me your log books. [laughs] So they were all too happy to show me their guns and their fish because it was kind of a novelty. I was met with great reception doing my duty as a law-enforcement officer at sea as the only woman they’d see. So I think if you take advantage of that and turn the tables on people, it can be a powerful thing to be different and to be the only woman in a mostly male environment.
You had an opportunity to go to the naval academy, but instead chose the USCGA—why?
I had applied to both and had gotten my nomination from [Maryland] Sen. [Paul] Sarbanes for Annapolis, and I’d been living in Maryland. But my guidance counselor said, “You know what, there’s the Coast Guard Academy—it’s smaller but it looks similar.” So I went up and visited, and I loved the fact that it was smaller, and I loved the fact that it had every career path open to women. So I didn’t want to go into a service where I would be told that I couldn’t go out and serve on certain vessels, which is what the Navy was telling women—they couldn’t serve on any vessels hardly when they first going like what I was going through at the Coast Guard Academy. I would’ve been stuck doing a desk job, and that’s not why I was joining the armed forces for. I wanted to see the world, experience all the adventures that men did. I had never been told by my parents that because I was the only girl in the family, that I had to play with dolls or couldn’t do what the boys did. I got to shoot the guns, throw the knives, and I wasn’t going to be going to a service where they looked at me and said, “You can’t do that.” I wanted one that said, “You can.”
Best piece of advice that you give about making the Coast Guard your life?
People who want to enter in—and remember, right now, you’re talking to someone who is superintendent of 1,000 cadets, young people, and what might want to make them chose the Coast Guard as their lives—the advice I would give to younger people now coming in—you’re buying into the Coast Guard Academy five years of obligated service, possibly. We retain at 85 percent beyond the five-year mark, so that means once 85 percent of us reach that mark, we decide we love this and that we’re going to stay . . . so the piece of advice about making the Coast Guard your life that I would give is that it takes a lot of time, often you’re at sea away from your family, but the Coast Guard is a family. It’s a small service feeling—we are a Coast Guard family, first and foremost. Your shipmates and your friends can be your extended family. I really think that’s so important because we’re all trying to balance work and life. I love this quote by Epicureas: “Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.” So the Coast Guard gives you a chance to be part of the Coast Guard family and to meet a lot of friends. I never got married until I was 47, but I had a fully complete and rich life in the Coast Guard because I got through that commitment an extended Coast Guard family and all sorts of friends who have satisfied all my needs for happiness and self-fulfillment.
How has your view of the academy changed from being a cadet to being in charge?
I hate to say this because it sounds selfish, but when I was a cadet, it was all about me, and the Coast Guard’s leadership model, in fact, talks about how the first thing you have to do as a young person is “to learn how to lead self.” Then you move on to leading others, then leading the organization, then leading change. I was really in that “leading self” mode—as most cadets are! [laughs] Most young people, it’s all about them and it should be because they need to find their way in life, it’s a journey of self-discovery, who are they, etc. And they need to find that out before they can move on to leading others. So it was all about me as a cadet! Now, shame on me if it’s all about me. Now, I try to make sure as a superintendent, I’m looking behind myself every day at 1,000 cadets coming up behind me who are going to replace me someday, and I’m looking ahead to look at where my Coast Guard Academy can add value to our Coast Guard and beyond. What can I do strategically with this academy to move forward the goals of the Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security and America.
What are the challenges of drawing quality cadets to the USCGA?
We are in a competition with a lot of institutions of higher education. I know you’ve recently interviewed [UConn President] Susan Herbst, and UConn’s a great school. I’m right across from Connecticut College—that’s a great school. There are some great school just here in Connecticut, so we’re competing for the very best students. We like to think that of the nation’s service academies, the Coast Guard is no different than the Army, Navy or Air Force as having the highest-tiered students. But everybody wants those students, and there’s a shrinking pool of those eligible for military service, as you probably know. In fact, I just did a little research for this interview, and I saw that Public Radio International did a piece on Sept. 27 about the obesity epidemic, saying that 27 percent of Americans aged 17-24 are too fat to serve in the U.S. military, and if you take all the other factors that need to be considered to serve in the military, only 25 percent of our nation’s youth 17-24 are even eligible. So the challenge we have at USCGA is that we’re only looking at 25 percent of youngsters in the age group we can target are even eligible, and we’re looking for the very best of those to come, and they have choices like the Ivy Leagues and the good state schools.
You’ve stressed an emphasis on conduct and physical fitness since your arrival—why?
Absolutely. We are definitely looking at conduct, core values, character and physical fitness for a number of reasons. The standards we have at a military academy are what make us able to cultivate a fair, inclusive environment here, to make everyone feel valued and respected. The minute you start making exceptions, you start looking around and it’s just a school filled with exceptions. There’s no more standards. So in the military, it’s all about standards, meeting them, being held accountable and responsible. America deserves commissioned officers who are worthy of those traditions of commissioned officers in the U.S. Coast Guard. That’s part of our mission statement. Part of that is having standards that have to do with conduct and physical fitness and meeting them, and being accountable, because they’re going to be accountable leaders—the leaders of character that America wants out there—making the decisions that impact our whole nation and security. One thing you didn’t mention was weight standards—we have weight standards, physical fitness standards and very, very strict conduct and core values and honor standards to make sure that our young people here are getting the character and the fitness, both mental and physical, that they need to go out there and serve America. There are cheating scandals you hear going around at other schools, you’re going to have them—even we have cadets who cheat. But we hold them accountable, and they may not be part of the Coast Guard Academy if they’ve cheated whereas other schools might tolerate that. We’re going to have the character and core values that now may be the exception in a world where a lot is accepted and we take an “anything goes” approach. Sorry for the long-winded answer, but I’m pretty passionate about the accountability and responsibility that our young leaders need to go out there and lead young men and women in the excruciatingly challenging missions we face nowadays.
So what are the biggest challenges that your cadets need to prepare for life in the Coast Guard following graduation?
Our young people, when they graduate as commissioned officers from the Coast Guard Academy, are going to be leading in a more complex environment than ever before, where much more is expected a junior level. When I was a cadet, I got away with having a chance to grow into my role as a junior officer and make my mistakes and recover from them, and move on. But much more is expected a junior level now, for instant, on-the-spot decisions in the public limelight. Every decision our junior leaders make now is often captured on camera and potentially criticized. We have these TV shows—“Coast Guard Alaska” and “Coast Guard Florida” now on The Weather Channel—so our young people are being watched and filmed on their missions where when I was a cadet and a j.o. thirty years ago, you could do these things without the media being right there to watch. It’s a more complex environment, and they have to be prepared to lead and provide maturity and good decisions at a much younger age.
I’ve read that you’re naturally shy—your appointment has raised your profile (national recognition) as well as the academy’s, so how has it been being more prominent?
I was definitely shy as a young girl, as a teenager and in my first years in the Coast Guard, but it’s interesting—I never would’ve been picked in high school as one of the ones “Most Likely to Succeed” in a leadership position like an officer in the U.S. military because of my more quiet demeanor. But I think that the nation’s service academies and serving your country, just give you a great opportunity. Like early on, you asked about the challenges—I’ve always looked at like an opportunity, and it brought out every bit of the best I had to give. The USCGA and the Coast Guard will challenge us way beyond our comfort zones, and make us push beyond our limits and draw down deep within to find qualities of our character and personality that we never had to draw on. I was able to push past that shyness and, over time, have the Coast Guard draw out my real strengths. Now I have that ability to pick the kind the demeanor I need to have for the event. If I’m in public spots, I need to be engaged and outgoing and in the game, and then if I have my private time, I can be down, I can be the person who stands a bit and doesn’t take the limelight.
What do you miss about commanding a cutter?
You know, I have to say—and this sounds very simple, but sometimes that’s the best answer—I miss the sunrises, the sunsets and the sting of the salt air in my face. [laughs] The smell of the sea, the sounds. I love the way being at sea fills up your senses. I like looking up at night and having the stars look like they’re one foot away—you feel like you can reach up and pull one down from the sky. So, I miss that whole sensory experience of a quiet night a sea before the dawn breaks or right after the sun has set.
You commanded an ice-breaking tug—do you now prefer your drinks neat?
Ha ha. For those of us who have been in the icebreaker fleet, when we get somebody who’s never been assigned to an icebreaker before, we say that the only ice they’ve ever seen is in the bottom of their glass! [laughs] But no, I still like ice in any form—I like winter sports, I like ice skating and I like ice in my rum and Cokes!
After years at sea, do you have any good yarns?
Well, we sailors always have sea stories, and most of them are like fish stories, so they get bigger with telling, so keep that in mind whenever you’re talking to a sailor. It’s like talking to a fisherman. There’s always stories, and they always involve storms and saving people. If you talk to most Coast Guardsmen and ask them about sea stories, it would involve a big storm and/or making a great rescue, and that’s kind of what “Coast Guard Alaska” is all about. Those kinds of rescues that are in the face of Mother Nature. I’ve been 12 years at sea, so I’ve been in the teeth of a storm going out in the North Atlantic when I was stationed as a commanding officer of a 210-foot cutter out of Kittery, Maine. I was mostly patroling in the New England waters and well off shore in many cases, and we had a Thanksgiving storm where a 30-some-odd-foot sailboat was trying to make its way from Newport to Bermuda well past the time when such voyages should’ve been undertaken. They winter down there, and this guy was a month late and got stuck in a major Atlantic storm and we were dispatched to save him. It was really bad weather the whole time, and there was really no way we could get near enough this little tiny sailboat in the storm to even get the guy on board. We needed to get him off his boat and on board ours, and there was no way we could do it. We tried a lot of things. He was out of range of helicopter—if you watch “Coast Guard Alaska,” you know that a lot of those rescues are done by helicopters hoisting people of their distressed vessel before it sinks. In this case, there was no such hope of that. The guy was one third of the way from here to England and we were out there in the winter storm. We finally rode it out; there was a break in the storm so we were able to send a small boat over, get him transferred, get him back aboard our boat and get his boat in tow, and then we had to get him all the way back to America in that storm system. So we were lucky. We saved this one guy, and it was a whole week of effort for my crew—they were exhausted—but at the end of the day, you saved a life. And that’s a lot of deep satisfaction. It’s the kind of thing, you go home and tell your family, “Hey, I missed Thanksgiving, but here’s what we did.”
New London has a long maritime history—do you have a favorite story?
I have one that’s clear and present in the back of my mind. Not more than two months ago in July, we had OpSail 2012 that came up the coast—you probably heard of it, in recognition of the War of 1812’s 200th anniversary. I was able to board the Coast Guard cutter [and tall ship] Eagle at anchor in Niantic. The Eagle led the parade of tall ships up the Thames River under almost complete sail—the only said that wasn’t set was so that the conning officer could see to navigate the ship in restricted waterways. But a full set of sails coming up the Thames River—the winds were just right and the crew was exceptionally prepared and trained under the leadership of Capt. Eric Jones—I just think that’s a great historic moment for New London to have. OpSail 2012, as you might know, John Johnson was the head of committee and the state pitched in to support, and it was national recognition for the Coast Guard Academy, the Eagle, New London and the state of Connecticut. I think that was a great moment for New London’s maritime history.
Do you give special advice to female cadets?
I try to keep my advice targeted to junior officers, whether they are male or female, but it is indisputable that we have certain issues that face young women that don’t face young men. So yes, I do. I encourage young women to develop the proficiency and the professionalism and the pride to have the confidence and competence to walk on board a vessel as a junior officer, maybe freshly commissioned, and be able to have the presence that commands and earns the trust and respect of the crew, not give the other signal of vulnerability or hesitation. That mix of confidence and competence but not the hubris and the overconfidence that can go with young people that don’t really know the job, so they put on this false sense of bravado—oh, the crew can see right through that so fast! [laughs] You want them to avoid that, both male and female, but women need to go on with enough confidence and competence and proficiency to look to earn the respect, not gain friendships. Too many of our young women try to become friends with people and the crew takes that wrong. These are young people from all over America, and young women can across wrong and then be looked at without the respect and the trust of the leadership role they’re trying to fill, and look more like a friend or someone to chum with or to go out on liberty with, and that’s not the way you want to get off to a good start. I think women are more vulnerable to that—it’s still mostly a male environment out there at sea on our cutters where women first go to serve.
What have you learned in your first year about the academy as superintendent (that maybe you didn’t know even after 4 years as a cadet)?
Let’s see . . . I think when I was a cadet, I saw the academy as a place where I came to spend four years getting a great education and fulfilling the mission statement of the Coast Guard Academy, which we have a whole mission statement that talks about great things like “graduating young men and women with sound bodies, stout hearts and alert minds with a liking for a sea and its lore.” And of course, “becoming worthy of the traditions of commissioned officers in the U.S. Coast Guard in service of their country and humanity.” We have that whole mission statement that’s ingrained in every cadet. When I was a cadet, it was all about that—graduating young officers, me included, to go out and have a career in the same service. I think it’s cool that the Coast Guard Academy graduates its employees. A young person comes in, swears their oath the first day they report in as a cadet and then four years later they’re working for that same organization—that’s pretty cool. UConn can’t do that; they groom all these young people that go off to serve everywhere. Now, as the superintendent what I see is not just am I at the Coast Guard Academy, the single succession source of all the officers in the Coast Guard, but also, we do so much more to deliver value and impact back to the Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security and beyond. My mantra for the Coast Guard Academy is that we’re “locally relevant and nationally prominent.” That goes way beyond graduating commissioned officers. That goes into the community partnerships we have, those here in New London and on the state level, the service our cadets perform. We’re doing a Habitat for Humanity project here that is making headlines because it’s a totally Coast Guard Academy-funded effort. Our non-appropriated funds from our donors are going into raising $90,000 to fully fund a house for a needy family in New London, and our officers and our cadets are putting in all the labor. It’ll be a Coast Guard entity entirely, both on labor and funding, which Habitat for Humanity here says they don’t know of any other college or university that has done that. We have that huge impact that we give back, and that’s just locally. Nationally, we have a Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy that is going to be delivering value. We just hosted this spring an international leadership for the Arctic conference to look at issues that are pressing to the Arctic for which the Coast Guard has responsibility and we can deliver academic research and products to help inform decision-makers, even in the White House for Arctic strategy and policy. Sorry for the long-winded answer, but I’m pretty passionate about that. As superintendent, I see the bigger picture of what our academy can be to the nation in addition to just—and that’s a big “just”—graduating officers to run the Coast Guard.
Your husband Bob Volpe also served in the Coast Guard—is that a good thing in that he understands the life?
Absolutely! My husband came up through the ranks. He started out as a guardsman, went to boot camp and made chief petty officer. He then applied for the chief-to-warrant officer program, which if you’re familiar with the other services, is a limited-duty officer or LDO—we call it a chief warrant officer. He then applied for the warrant-officer-to-lieutenant program, and that’s the way in our service you work your up the enlisted ranks to the officer ranks. So he give a great perspective when we’re at receptions or interacting with the cadets. Having had a full career in the Coast Guard as a seagoing engineer, he complements me, who was a seagoing professional from the operations side in coming through the Academy, so I think we’re able to go out and around together as a couple and interact with the cadets, and they get a “two-fer” out of us. [laughs]
What about the two of you in your daily life? You both have that experience with sea-faring life. Is that a positive?
Oh, it’s definitely a positive. We have so much in common, and for me personally—it took me until I was 47, and my husband, too, he had never been married before and we’re the same age, so we both got married for the first time at 47. We were looking for a partner who had common values, common likes, who wanted to be together. We have so much in common as a foundation for a friendship—that’s very important to us. It’s great that we had a shared background, a shared experience. That way too, he understands if I have these ridiculously long hours and am away a lot. Whereas I know from a personal fact of interacting for 35 years now with friends and others, there are people who have spouses that don’t understand that and it causes tension in the marriage. My husband is very supportive and understands all this.
Now, he’s retired from the Coast guard, correct?
I’ve also read that you’ve talked about retiring after this tour of duty.
You know, every day that I come to work, I’m thankful that I’m serving. I serve at the Commandant of the Coast Guard’s pleasure; he assigned me, he will make the decision on what is best for the Coast Guard and where all us admirals serve. Certainly, one very likely option, if you look at history, most people at the Coast Guard Academy, in the role of superintendent and at every other service academy, they’re mostly positions that are terminal positions, and they’re a lot of reasons for that. They’re looking for senior people in these jobs, for people without an agenda. They want superintendents focused on the cadets and the organization, not their own next career stepping stone. I’m perfectly happy to retire from this job if that’s what the service wants from me, and that’s the perspective you need to have in a job like this.
What would you do after this?
I’m sorry to say this because it might make me seem small-minded, but I’m too busy in this job to think about what I’m going to do when this job is over! This job has been historically a four-year job and I’m only 16 months into it, so I’m fully occupied, mind, body and soul with the duties of this job! [laughs]
What do you do outside of work, then?
I love eating ice cream and I can’t believe that you haven’t asked me about it! [laughs] Why didn’t you ask me what my favorite flavor of ice cream is at Michael’s Dairy Bar? That’s the Mitchell College ice cream dairy bar right down the street!
What is your favorite flavor of ice cream?
Coffee! [laughs] My favorite flavor is coffee, but if I’m looking at fruit kind of flavoring in the summer, I love their black raspberry. But coffee is just delicious. So now I feel like I got parity with Susan [Herbst] and got to answer about my favorite ice cream. So back to your original question, I like the simple pleasures of life, I’ve had a lot of time at sea and small beds with sea showers, I like good ice cream, good food. I love long walks in the woods, I like hiking and biking. My husband and I have a fishing canoe, and we get that out.
Where do you like to fish?
We fish at Lake of Isles—there are beautiful lakes here in Connecticut, and one of them is Lake of Isles. There’s a number of little lakes that we’ve tried—we’ve probably tried six lakes this year, and they’re usually within 45 minutes of us here in New London.
What do you see as the role of the USCGA?
I’ve covered that a little, but if you look at my slogan, “Locally Relevant, Nationally Prominent,” our role as one of the five federal service academies—and Connecticut is so fortunate to have one of them—is that we’re an institution of America. What distinguishes America as a first-tier democracy from others around the world is our rule of law and our institutions that carry out that rule of law, that carry out the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and all that—so your court systems, your industrial base, your federal service academies. Some of these foundational institutions are so important to our democracy, to making this country well represented to having that steady, common, constant, reliable source of whether it’s legal opinions that you get out of the Supreme Court, or your education or your military readiness. Your service academies provide that constant, ready, reliable source of leaders to lead your military with the character, the values, the qualities you want. You can count on that. Because there’s often the argument, “Well, we’ve got officer candidate school, we’ve got ROTC, even UConn has a ROTC element,” but the five federal service academies including the Coast Guard deliver that rock-solid guaranteed foundation that they’ve been doing for a couple hundred years of the kind of officers who lead our nation in the biggest crises we ever have, whether it’s war time, or in the Coast Guard’s case, where there was 9/11 response, Hurricane Katrina response, Deep Water Horizon response. You want that reliable source of officers to be able to make a difference in America, and under the most challenging of crisis management and leadership conditions.