Admiral Linda L. Fagan shattered the military’s glass ceiling on Wednesday to become commander of the United States Coast Guard and the first female officer to lead a branch of the United States Armed Forces.
Previously the service’s second-in-command, Fagan has worn the Coast Guard uniform for more than four decades and on seven continents. She graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1985, one of 16 women who graduated sixth class to include women.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in the junior ranks, but we have to keep moving forward,” Fagan told TSTIME News in an interview last year. “We don’t yet reflect the society we serve, and we need to keep working on that.”
“I recognize that I now provide a pair of shoulders for those who come after me,” Fagan added.
Fagan is the 27th commander of the service, dating back to the 1915 creation of the Coast Guard, which merged the Revenue Cutter Service and the US Life-Saving Service. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the branch was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
“It was about time,” President Joe Biden said Wednesday. “When Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin sent me your name, I said, ‘What took you so long?'”
“Admiral Fagan is a trailblazer,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Wednesday. “Today is a historic day for the United States Coast Guard and a historic day for the United States.”
During his remarks, Fagan paid tribute to Adm. Owen W. Siler, the 15th Service Commander who oversaw the integration of the Service Academies.
“I never thought I would be here today, and I want to thank him,” Admiral Fagan said, noting that she wore the late commander’s epaulets in his honor.
She succeeds Adm. Karl Schultz as head of the Coast Guard.
Mayorkas praised Schultz for leading a more than 20% increase in the Coast Guard budget as well as “the largest shipbuilding effort since World War II.” In addition to seeing the branch weather the coronavirus pandemic, Schultz’s tenure also included the nation’s most active hurricane season to date, including three Category 5 hurricanes.
“We are a learning organization striving to be more diverse and representative of the great nation we serve,” Schultz told crowds gathered at Wednesday’s ceremony. “To be the best in the world, we must also be the most inclusive in the world.”
The Coast Guard has changed a lot since Fagan entered the academy in 1981. At that time, the service’s cutters still needed new sleeping quarters and new washroom facilities for enlisted women. Building permanent facilities for women across the US Coast Guard fleet has taken years.
Fagan’s daughter, Aileen, is now a lieutenant in the Coast Guard.
The new commander previously led the Pacific Area and the U.S. Coast Guard Western Defense Force as commander.
Her first enlistment took her to Seattle, where she served on the Polar Star, an icebreaker, as the only woman on board during her two-year tour. But his tour almost didn’t happen.
“At the time, the general manager, when I did my final briefing, actually said that we were thinking of canceling your orders. We didn’t want just one woman on board,” Fagan told TSTIME News. “And luckily it didn’t, and it was an amazing first tour for me.”
Adm. Michelle Howard became the first woman to achieve four-star rank in the United States Navy and has since retired. General Charles Q. Brown Jr., chief of the United States Air Force, is the first black officer to reach the level of chief of service. Secretary of Defense General Lloyd J. Austin III is the first black man to hold the post.
According to the US Coast Guard, 40% of the incoming class at Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut are women. Currently, only 15% of US Coast Guard personnel are women, while 30% represent minorities.
In 2015, the Obama administration abandoned policies that once barred women from serving in combat roles.
Last year, Fagan became the first female four-star admiral in U.S. Coast Guard history. The: General Dunwoody, General Janet Wolfenbarger, Admiral Michelle Howard, General Lori Robinson, General Ellen Pawlikowski, General Maryanne Miller and General Jacqueline Van Ovost, who is currently serving, are among the few.
The new Commanding Officer also earned the branch of service’s first-ever gold antique trident, recognizing the officer with the longest service record in maritime security.
Catherine Herridge and Natalie Brand contributed to this report.