By Joanne McCaffrey

I was a wise-cracking, scrawny 18-year-old with a flute and a tennis racket when I reported to the Coast Guard Academy on June 28, 1976. Stupidly, I showed up wearing high heels and a summer dress. On that first day, as we trooped all over the Academy getting our haircuts, ID cards, and uniforms, I turned to a classmate and said, “I have got to get out of these shoes.” He smiled.

Because I was in the first class of women, I felt an absolute obligation to “get it right” for all the women who would follow me. I was not an athlete, but I was in good shape. I was a good student, but not a great one. Still, I felt an obligation to participate in every aspect of cadet life. I was in the women’s singing groups and the marching band. I was a cheerleader and sang in the folk group at church each Sunday. I was on the gymnastics, basketball, volleyball, softball, and crew teams. My position was often on the bench, but we established a varsity sports program that flourishes today!

Joanne McCaffrey on her first day in uniform at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1976. | Photo credit Photo courtesy of retired Coast Guard Capt. Joanne McCaffrey

I wanted to go to the academy for the adventure and I knew my professional training would be identical to that of my male classmates.

As a cadet, I sailed the tall ship Eagle from New London, Connecticut, to Hamburg, Germany, and Portsmouth, England. Aboard a high endurance cutter, I traveled to France, Spain, and the Caribbean. I learned how to fire a pistol and a rifle and put out fires.

I experienced tear gas, and tried to save a fake ship from sinking at damage control school. I even jumped out of a Coast Guard helicopter into the Gulf of Mexico. I got adventure and then some!

Graduating from the Coast Guard Academy was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Only 14 of the 37 women who reported with me graduated. There were cadets and staff at the academy that made life difficult for the women and hoped we would fail. There were also instructors, chaplains, and coaches who helped us succeed!

Some of us made our own lives difficult.

My many extracurricular activities certainly impacted my academic success and my wise mouth got me into more than a little trouble. I graduated in the middle of my class with a degree in Ocean Engineering.

The day after I graduated, I married the classmate who had smiled at me on that first day—Commander Frank Albero (Ret.). Together we raised three children and had fulfilling Coast Guard careers.

I like to think I would have been successful coming out of any college, but being a graduate of the Coast Guard Academy gave me a sense of accomplishment and capability that surpassed my expectations. Having completed four tough years of training and academics made me believe I could accomplish anything!

When I retired from the Coast Guard in 2009, I told my friends and family that the 33 years since June 28, 1976, had been the best adventure I could have hoped for—and I meant it!

–Joanne McCaffrey is a retired captain in the United States Coast Guard.