Women empowering women – a top down perspective

by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Dean

Sudden shifts in climate, unforgiving seas, and snowcaps everywhere. Life in Alaska requires a different breed of person to adapt and truly thrive in its wilderness and waters, both of which are as paradoxically daunting as they are beautiful. Similarly, life onboard a cutter can be taxing, but simultaneously incredibly rewarding, especially when you are the commanding officer.

Lt. Merrill Gutowski.

I had the pleasure of interviewing two commanding officers of 110-foot cutters stationed in Alaska. Lt. Lauren Milici is the commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Naushon, homeported in Homer, and Lt. Merrill Gutowski is the commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Chandeleur, homeported in Valdez.

Lt. Lauren Milici



Q: What is it like being a female commanding officer of a cutter?

Gutowski: Cutter life is unique, no matter what position you have, and since graduating from the academy, getting to be the commanding officer, it has been a dream of mine. Putting those two together and getting to be the commanding officer on a 110 is definitely the most rewarding experience I’ve had so far in the Coast Guard. There is never a boring day.

Milici: It’s great. I have one of the best jobs in the Coast Guard – hands down – just by having the opportunity to be a CO on a ship.

Q: What are some of the ups and downs of holding this position? Have you experienced any struggles throughout your career?

Gutowski: Unique to Alaskan cutters, there are not that many cutters around, so that network that we are used to is long-distance. Definitely one of the challenges of being up here is that there aren’t that many commanding officers you get to sit down and talk to, most of it is over-the-phone, and that can be difficult. Coming from a larger cutter background, I’m used to a larger support system. I’m definitely happy since coming to Ketchikan, which is where we are currently in dry dock at, that there are a lot more people in my position around to learn from.

 Milici: I think the ups and down of the position, they kind of blend together. What makes it so good is also what makes it challenging. What this unit accomplishes is entirely a team effort. Sometimes I’m the coach. Sometimes I’m the quarterback. Sometimes I’m the cheerleader. Being able to adapt and put on whatever hat I need to wear in order to handle a situation is definitely a leadership challenge but is also incredibly rewarding.

Q: Did you have any experience on ships or on the water before joining the Coast Guard?

Gutowski: I grew up sailing with my family in New England when I was a kid. We sailed out of Rhode Island, all of those ports in the Southern New England area. So, yes, I was very big into sailing!

Milici: A little bit. I grew up in Connecticut on Long Island Sound, so I’ve had some experience on recreational vessels. I’ve always enjoyed taking weekend trips with family across the sound. I think it was that initial sense of freedom that you experience at sea that made me really enjoy pursuing afloat.

Q: Do you have any funny stories or things that have happened to you while being underway?

Gutowski: I was asking around from the crew about this and the consensus is our first search and rescue case we did as a crew this summer was probably the most fun SAR case anyone will ever get to do. On our way to a disabled vessel, the crew of the vessel had been taken off by the helicopter, and the command center called us back and said that there was a dog still on board, but we didn’t need to make that trip if we weren’t able to. Of course that made us all want to go faster, because there was a puppy, a grown husky, and that was the best SAR case we’d ever had. We got to take the two dogs off and bring them back to Valdez with us, and we had two cutter dogs for the day! We got to give them back to their families when they got home.

Milici: Well I have a funny story. When I was an ensign, I once called the captain to the bridge because I had a contact with constant bearing and decreasing range. Usually that’s an indication of the potential for a risk of collision. I couldn’t correlate it on radar. I called him to the bridge, and as it turned out, it was the planet Venus sitting very low on the horizon that just looked like a big, bright contact, but it was the planet. That was a silly, ensign goofball thing.

Q: What is the most difficult part about being in this position?

Gutowski: I think for me the most difficult part is that I’ve only been out of the academy for four years now. It’s been a steep learning curve, but I’ve been on cutters the whole time. I definitely have experience to draw from, but I’m still very new in this career. I have been able to learn from other people, from both my crew and my mentors and people from my old cutters. It’s been a steep learning curve but I’m excited that I have the people around me and the crew that I do to make us successful.

Milici: I think many women experience this, but very early in my career, I struggled with maintaining confidence in my own ability. I was very fortunate to have individuals along the way who saw something in me and invested their time in my professional development. That was a huge turning point for me – having a handful of mentors who wanted to see me succeed. It’s what helped me realize that I am highly capable, and it gave me the confidence to really carve out a space for myself in this organization. Those individuals were ultimately, what made me decide to pursue a career in the Coast Guard, and to continue as an afloat officer specifically.

Q: March is designated Women’s History Month. Tell me a little about how holding this position in the military makes you feel, especially since you embody an empowering role model to other females around the globe.

Gutowski: The whole reason that I wanted to do this in the first place was that my mentors had been in this position before. I looked up to them, and they made me realize that it was possible. It’s really humbling to me to realize now that I’m probably that person for someone else. It wasn’t about being a female commanding officer; It was about being a really good commanding officer, and being the best that you can for the crew, and in supporting them. I took a lot from that, and I always thought that was a really cool thing to aspire to. It’s pretty exciting that now I get to do that for someone else.

Milici: Women’s history month is a time that I personally like to take the time, and take a moment to reflect upon. I’ve been able to stand on the shoulders of giants that came before me. I was the plankowner crew that commissioned the Stratton back in 2012, and the Stratton was named after Capt. Dorothy Stratton who led the SPARS in WWII. During the cutter’s commissioning, the Coast Guard invited all of the remaining SPARS as VIP guests, and it was a powerful moment, having these WWII veterans, whose service to nation went largely unrecognized for the majority of their lifespan. Years later, here they are looking at this beautiful new ship named after their captain, a female, and received all this fanfare in their honor in recognition of what they accomplished, and that was a powerful moment for me to witness. It hit home that what we do matters. Doing the job, making it the norm to have female service members throughout all ranks and specialties. We live as an example, so that young women know that the Coast Guard is a viable option.


As these two female commanding officers carve out a space in history, they are paying it forward to future and current female Coast Guardsmen. However, most importantly, they expressed that to be successful; Coast Guardsmen need to achieve individual and team goals. By relying on each other and investing in each other, the Coast Guard will succeed and the person will succeed.

In honor of Women’s History Month, and in honor of all the confident and pioneering women who have paved the way for the future of the female commanding officers in the Coast Guard to come, we thank you all.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,