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RICHARD DEGENER Staff Writer, 609-463-6711
Karen Voorhees is one of the few women in the military allowed to take part in combat, even if it is the U.S. Coast Guard's version of combat: search and rescue.
When mariners are in distress, Voorhees boards a helicopter at Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, flies offshore and jumps into the water to save them. She is one of three female rescue swimmers, and has strong opinions on what it takes for a female to succeed.
"You can't giggle your way through this job," said Voorhees, an aviation survival technician. "You have to be able to put the girl thing aside. If your hair is a problem, cut it off. You have to do anything the guys can do. Get dirty. Work hard."
Voorhees is proof that the Coast Guard's move to include women, which seems to be a struggle for other military services, is going pretty well. The Coast Guard has mostly avoided the big sex scandals that have plagued the other services. It is the only service, since 1978, in which every single rating is open to women.
Playing an active role Coast Guard women are not pushed into office work; they are stationed on ice breakers, in helicopters, buoy tenders, law enforcement, doing engineering work and serving as admirals.
The Coast Guard Academy made the decision to admit women before Congress mandated it for all the services. It now graduates classes that are 33 percent female - the highest percentage in the military. The Army, Navy and Air Force academies hover at 15 percent to 17 percent female. Overall numbers in the Marines are just more than 6 percent female.
Several women have made the rank of admiral. Officer Candidate School, which opened to women in 1973, has averaged 24 percent female over the past three years.
That the Coast Guard is turning out female leaders doesn't surprise Rear Adm. Mary Landry. She graduated from OCS in 1980 and expected to stay only three years but found she never wanted to leave.
Landry said there are no barriers for women in the Coast Guard. While women get paid less than men in the private sector - 76 cents for each $1 a man makes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau - this is not true in the Coast Guard.
"It's equal pay and equal work," Landry said.
Landry rose to admiral, married Coast Guard Capt. Mark Landry, had two children and now is enjoying being a mentor to others following her path.
The Coast Guard's policies allow a woman to have a family and a career.
A woman, or a man for that matter, can take a two-year leave for family reasons and return to the same rank. If a female Coastie gets pregnant, she switches to secretarial duty or other jobs on land until the baby is born. Then it's back to sea.
The Coast Guard actively tries to work out arrangements so married couples who both serve can live a life together.
Landry said the Coast Guard has a lot more flexibility than other services because it's so small.
The Coast Guard has 39,849 active duty members, compared with the next-largest, the Marine Corps, at 178,190.
Women may also be drawn to military perks such as free medical and dental insurance, tax-free allowances for housing and food, 30 days of paid vacation and shopping privileges on base.
But women in the Coast Guard say there has to be more to it than that.
"Our mission is oil slicks, saving people, saving the environment and humanitarian missions. This appeals to women compared to the military. They have a warrior ethos. We have a guardian ethos," said Capt. Sandra L. Stosz, commander of Coast Guard Training Center Cape May.
Landry, who has brothers in the Army, agrees. In wartime, the Coast Guard is under the Navy, but in peacetime its missions include search and rescue, port security, fisheries enforcement, marine safety and protecting the environment. She said this is appealing to women.
"We make sure ships don't hit right whales," said Landry, who earlier in her career investigated the sinking of several clamming boats off New Jersey.
One big, happy family
Unlike some military boot camps, male and female recruits in Cape May train together. All the new boats being built have both male and female quarters.
"Everything is done so women can serve anywhere without constraints," Stosz said.
The physical aptitude tests are lower for women in many cases, such as boot camp. But in the tough life-and-death jobs such as rescue swimming, women and men have to pass the same tests.
Can women do what the men do? Some say that's not the point, since the goal at sea is teamwork. A strong woman could outperform a weaker man, or vice versa, but together they could pull a water-logged mariner into a heaving boat.
The combat exclusion for women, still in place in the other services, was lifted in 1973. Rear Adm. Paul Yost defended this in 1983, saying the men and women on Coast Guard vessels are trained to function as one.
Stosz said men and women are different and to say they are the same "is not useful." She also noted she is "a big, strong girl" but is not sure she could handle ground combat in Iraq.
But she knows she can handle anything expected by the service on Coast Guard ships because she has done it.
"In the Coast Guard, on ships, women can do anything men can do. We have female rescue swimmers. There haven't been many. Strength is a component of being a good rescue swimmer, but mentally, the tenaciousness of sticking with it is more important than physical strength and muscles when you get thrown in the cold, dark ocean," Stosz said.
Still few female recruits
Despite there being plenty of room at the top, the number of females enlisting lags compared with other services. The average for all military branches is 14.4 percent female, while 11.6 percent of Coast Guard applicants are female.
U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, who serves on the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, said more can be done to increase the numbers of females.
"They're leading, and that's a very good thing. Even though they are leading, they can and should do more," LoBiondo said.
Its relative lack of visibility hurts the Coast Guard in attracting enlistees. By definition, a service that guards the coasts isn't seen in the heartland. And the Coast Guard doesn't get the advertising budget of the other branches.
"When was the last time you even saw a Coast Guard commercial? I've been in the Coast Guard for 14 years and I've only seen a few late-night ads. For us, it's word of mouth and people seeing those U.S. Coast Guard helicopters and boats," Chief Warrant Officer Veronica Bandrowsky said.
Even with all the opportunities for women in the Guard, it's not a perfect world.
Voorhees admits she faced discrimination as the first female rescue swimmer to qualify. Her first chief said she would never make it, but that only made her work harder.
"For every one guy who was a complete jerk like this, there were 10 who weren't," she said.
Voorhees said there is occasional talk of lowering the standards for female rescue swimmers, but she would oppose that.
"When it hits the fan, you need the best for the job," she said.