LCDR Kristen Caldwell, U.S. Coast Guard


Just like many of my fellow service members who were young adults in 2001, my decision to join the United States Armed Forces was shaped by a critical and traumatic event in our Nation's history. In 2001, I was 17 years old and a senior in high school. On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was following my normal routine, heading from first period to homeroom. We normally watched morning announcements during that period. However, this day was a bit different. I walked in and saw my teacher glued to the television screen with her mouth ajar and eyes filled with tears. I had no idea what was going on but when I asked if she was alright, she said she heard a plane had hit the World Trade Center. My immediate thought was that a small plane may have lost control and accidently crashed, but from looking at the screen with the amount of smoke and the size of the void left in the tower, it was evident it was a much larger aircraft. Never once did the thought cross my mind that what I was seeing was an intentional act. I vaguely remember the Oklahoma City Bombings when I was about 10 years old, but the magnitude of an event like that wasn't something that truly resonated with me. As I was processing what I was witnessing, we all saw the second plane crash into the World Trade Center real time. I will never get that image out of my head or forget the sickening feeling in my gut. The series of emotions that followed were mingled with anger, fear, hesitation, sadness, but most importantly, a sense of duty. That sense was something I hadn't fully developed yet as a young girl, but I had a deep sensation of wanting to fix it or help in some way and didn't know how to direct it. 

Over the following day, we watched the entire plot unfold through the attacks on the Pentagon and Flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania. The shock continued to build. Once the source of the attacks were revealed, I made the determination that I was going to do something. I didn't know what, but I wanted to be a part of any effort that would prevent something like that from ever happening again. I felt helpless and that was infuriating. I was angry. I was devastated. I was emotional. Nearly everyone in my little high school in Eastern North Carolina had at least some connection to a friend, family member, or acquaintance that was directly impacted by the attacks.  Coming from a military family, I had always heard stories of my Grandfather who was in the Navy in World War II, my father who was in the Air Force during Vietnam, and my Aunt who was in the Army during Vietnam. I had always admired their courage and dedication to this Country. It was a natural feeling to want to follow in their footsteps. 

Over the next few weeks, I witnessed the true magnitude of our Nation's Armed Forces unfold. I watched our President stand in the rubble of the World Trade Center with first responders. I watched the controlled manner in which he addressed the Nation and make his promise to catch and bring the perpetrators to justice. The wave of nationalism that came out of this country was inspiring. A lot of media focus remained on deployment of DOD forces, but one service stood out to me the most, and that was the United States Coast Guard. What drew me to them the most was the humanitarian aspect that characterized their actions Post-911. Not only were they on the forefront of Ports, Waterways, and Coastal Security, but they were evacuating people from impacted areas of Manhattan while also providing first aid and humanitarian assistance. They surged major ports and coast lines to increase coastal security. They became the first line of defense between our enemies and our coast. I wanted to be a part of that.


A few months later, I met a USCG Officer that told me about the United States Coast Guard Academy. I had always intended to go to college, but I still wanted to jump into the fight. Combining that feeling of wanting to serve with what I knew about the Coast Guard, I sat down with my father that night to talk about options. I was a pretty good student and knew that the Academy would certainly be a challenge, but it was a great option to get my education taken care of and jump directly into active duty when I graduated. My Father had always spoken so highly of the military and was ultimately the force multiplier that encouraged me to apply, and eventually receive an appointment to the USCGA. The four years I spent in New London, CT at the Coast Guard Academy were some of the toughest I had ever gone through. The academic rigor coupled with sports and military obligations was enough to make even the most determined of people crumble...and what nearly happened with me. However, I managed to adapt to the intense schedule and develop crucial support with great friends and wonderful professors.  I received my Bachelor of Science in Government/Public Policy from the Academy in May 2006.

I started off my career on a Medium Endurance Cutter (USCGC VIGILANT) conducting Alien Migrant Immigration Operations (AMIO) and Counter Drug Operations in the Caribbean. During that time, I spent the majority of a year at sea learning how to drive ships. Some of my favorite memories of being underway were on the bridge of the cutter standing watch and watching the sunsets at sea and seeing each star pop out of the night sky one by one. You've never seen beauty until you can see a completely unobstructed sky at sea. I then went on to be the Executive Officer of a Patrol Boat (CGC BLOCK ISLAND) out of North Carolina, where I conducted Fisheries Law Enforcement Operations and then got picked by the Coast Guard to pursue my Master's Degree in Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island.

I spent four years at Coast Guard Headquarters writing and developing Law Enforcement Policy for the Living Marine Resources Program. I then was sent to Oregon to become a Command Duty Officer at Sector Columbia River, where my primary duty was to supervise operations across all USCG missions and organize responses to incidents such as Search and Rescue, Law Enforcement, and Pollution Response. After I made Lieutenant Commander, I was selected to be the Contingency Planning Force Readiness Chief for the Sector, where I was in charge of developing and exercising the USCG's Contingency Plans for events and incidents such as Natural Disasters, Mass Rescue, and Pollution Response. My current position is the Living Marine Resources Program Manager for Coast Guard Pacific Area, located in Alameda, CA. 

I'll never forget my father's words to me right before my parents dropped me off scared to death at the front gates of the Academy for my basic training. "Krissy, you're tough and I didn't raise no quitter. No coming home from here. Be an enlisted man's officer. Take care of your people and always put them first. Also, keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut." Those simple words, although blunt and to the point, were the best pieces of advice I have ever received in my career. It translates to simply to never giving up on yourself, despite the challenges you face or how scary or formidable it may be. It translates to being humble and knowing where knowledge lies within your unit and learning from them. It translates to knowing your people and caring for them like family and putting their well-being first. And most importantly, it translates to taking a step back to see and hear, remembering to always be willing to learn from and respect others in order to be the best person you can be. These are the key components of my leadership and have been part of my philosophy as I have advanced.


 As I have advanced through the ranks and have had the opportunities to mentor other junior officers and enlisted members, I have done my best to exude these qualities. What it comes down to is the concept of servant leadership. Take care of your people first in order to make them the best they can be and the service becomes better as a whole. If I could pass one thing down to others, is to embrace this concept, as you are only as good as those around you. Take care of each other and you take care of the unit.

 The United States Coast Guard is a small, but mighty service. It has given me opportunities that I never would have been able to get elsewhere and the level of leadership experience I have obtained in my time in service is invaluable. For a country girl from a one stoplight 500 person town in Eastern North Carolina, I have seen and done things that I never thought imaginable. From sailing all over the Caribbean and East Coast of the United States, to rescuing mariners at sea, to riding boats in surf, to conducting law enforcement boardings on 300+ fisheries vessels, I have had the most wonderful experience with this service and have learned so much on how to be a better person. I can never give enough credit to my family who have always been so supportive of my career. I have a wonderful husband and three children that have supported me every step of the way. Being a Military Momma has its own challenges, but those sweet little ones know their Momma is "A Coast Guard" and are proud to tell everyone about it! A lot of people ask me how I do it...juggling a career as an Officer in the military and having a family. My response is, find a job you love, surround yourself with people that support and love you, and always...and I mean always, remain humble, willing to learn, and willing to teach. I know it sounds so cliché to say this, but I literally would not be able to do what I do without that support network at home. 

I have recently lost both my Momma and Daddy, which was a crushing experience, but I continue on knowing I have made them both very proud. Although they have passed away, I have found many Coast Guard mentors that have continued to support and guide me and are gracious enough to believe in me. I have been extremely blessed in having these people, both officer and enlisted, cross my path. As I continue on through the rest of my career, I only hope that I continue to embrace the morals and values they all instilled in me and hope that in my path, I have left a positive influence on others, the same way they did.


The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U. S. Coast Guard