While freshwater, our Great Lakes are actually massive inland seas that hold one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water. Guarding that precious resource, and those who ply its surface, is tasked to a military unit that calls Cleveland home.
For the large part, they work unseen, little more than an afterthought to those who stay on land. But for those who go down to those seas in ships, they are often the angel on our shoulder.
The men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Ninth District serve constant watch over one of America’s longest international maritime borders, more than 1,500 miles of coastline stretching across eight states. Along the way, they guard and protect freshwater ports and inspect commercial and private vessels and cargo. They keep ice-choked waterways open in the dead of winter. And, when the weather gets bad and other vessels head for the safety of port, they are first to head out to save those in peril upon the waters.
Rear Adm. June Ryan assumed command of the Ninth District in June of last year, today overseeing a force of more than 6,000 Coast Guard personnel. On her uniform, she wears eight rows of ribbons, a “fruit salad” that would be the envy of even the most decorated, battle-hardened combat veterans. She has been awarded the Defense Superior Service Medal, three Legion of Merit awards, six Coast Guard Meritorious Service Medals and two Coast Guard Commendation Medals, among many other awards.
She served four tours at the Coast Guard headquarters, two tours in the Pacific, including a stint as Pacific area chief of staff, and pulled a tour as senior instructor at the Maritime Law Enforcement School. She has served in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida. She also served as the military aide to the president, only the third woman in U.S. history to do so.
While her service record is impeccable, Ryan, by her own admission, is not exactly the kind of person who comes to mind when you think of a Coast Guard rear admiral — and it’s not because she is a woman.
“Actually, I grew up in Iowa and learned to sail on the Mississippi River with my dad,” says Ryan. “Some people might think it’s a little odd that someone from the Midwest ended up in the Coast Guard.
“But my dad served in the Army Air Corps, and my brother was in the Air Force. My mother was a nurse, so growing up I knew I wanted to do something that involved service. But I also wanted to do something that no one in my family had ever done before.”
In her sophomore year at Bowling Green State University in 1982, Ryan enlisted in the Coast Guard and went to Coast Guard boot camp the next summer. She attained the rank of boatswain’s mate third class before graduating from Officer Candidate School in 1985. She literally came up through the ranks, always facing up to every challenge the service threw at her.
“I’ve always been the kind of person who wanted to rise to an occasion and prove themselves,” says Ryan. “When someone told me I couldn’t do something, I always wanted to prove them wrong — from my earliest possible days.”
In one of her first assignments, she served as deck watch officer aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Gallatin, out of Governors Island in New York, a ship that was charged with multiple missions including interdicting drug traffickers in the Atlantic, Caribbean and off the coast of central and South America — a duty not for the faint of heart. Battling drug smugglers would give anyone nightmares. But it’s not drug interdiction that kept Rear Adm. Ryan awake at night.
“A part of our mission was also interdiction of immigrants who tried to come to this country illegally by boat,” she says. “That was actually the hardest part of the mission.”
Ryan could see in the immigrants’ eyes that they were desperate. They had probably spent their entire lives saving for the risky trip, with everything they owned in a small knapsack. And there were usually small, frightened children with them.
“You just knew that if your family were in the same situation, you might try the same thing,” Ryan says. “Sending them back was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.”
But it’s important to follow the process of legal immigration, Ryan stresses. In that regard, the mission was a form of life-saving, because many of those immigrant boats sink.
“So there was some solace,” she says. “They might not be where they wanted to be, but at least they were safely back on shore.”
Ryan also served as commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Cape Morgan out of Portland, Maine, “where we saved a lot of fisherman,” she says.
But rather than remember the hundreds of people saved, Ryan only remembers the lives lost.
“That’s one of the things about a career in the Coast Guard — you have the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” says Ryan, who has been involved in hundreds of rescues directly on the water, as well as by coordinating activities from shore. “Saving a person who is in the grips of death and giving them back to their family is one of the biggest adrenaline rushes you can ever have. But the other reality is that we don’t save everybody.”
Ryan first came to Cleveland in the early 1990s when she assumed command of the Neah Bay, a 140-foot ice breaker that is perhaps the most well-known face of the Coast Guard in Cleveland. Today, it’s one of two ice breakers headquartered in Cleveland, and one of six under Rear Adm. Ryan’s Ninth District command.
“We usually get under way in late fall for training and ice breaking preparations, but ice doesn’t really start to accumulate on the lakes until early January,” says Lt. Cmdr. Joshua Zike, who commands the Neah Bay today. “Our mission is to facilitate maritime commerce. Usually, when the Soo Locks and Welland Canal close, most ‘lakers’ go to a shipyard or service facility where they are laid up for winter. But there are some vessels that operate throughout mid-winter, delivering petroleum products for home heat or salt for snow remediation.”
The Neah Bay, along with its sister ship in Cleveland, the Morro Bay, can be sent to anywhere on the Great Lakes where needed, cutting a swath through almost 2 feet of ice at a continuous forward speed of 3 knots.
“The most we ever cut through was in Georgian Bay, where we cut through 36 inches of plate ice,” says Zike. “But we did that by backing up and ramming to break up the ice.”
You might think handling a 140-ice cutter is slow and clumsy, “but I would liken it to a sports car,” says Zike. “We have an extremely high horsepower-to-displacement ratio, and our bubbler system that expels low-pressure air along our keel reduces the friction between the ice and hull and actually acts as a force multiplier.”
In addition to ice-cutting operations out of Cleveland, the Coast Guard’s Ninth District also is responsible for safety and security of our port, waterways and even the skies — the most recent example being the Republican National Convention (RNC). The Coast Guard worked in partnership with other government organizations such as the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as well as other government agencies. It’s all a part of the U.S. Coast Guard’s mission to provide support for security during National Special Security Events (NSSE).
“It’s been a part of our mission since 2006,” says Lt. Caitlin Mitchell-Wurster, a helicopter pilot out of Air Station Detroit, one of two U.S. Coast Guard Air Stations in addition to two Air Facilities that operate during the boating season under Adm. Ryan’s command. “Nationally, the Coast Guard keeps an air security bubble over Washington, D.C., 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But we also provide air security for national security events.”
At these kinds of events, the Coast Guard partners with the Air Force or Secret Service to help identify and target low- and slow-flying planes, helicopters or drones.
Overseeing a command of such magnitude and myriad responsibilities would challenge anyone. It’s also a lifetime achievement that would make anyone proud, male or female.
“Being a woman has been a challenge,” Ryan admits. “There have actually been some people who have said to my face that the only reason I got this job is because I was a woman.
“But those remarks are really very few and far between. I would say the greatest challenge of command for a woman in the Coast Guard is the same challenge any woman executive might face today — and that is balancing work and family.
“I have been very fortunate to have a husband who retired from the Coast Guard, so he knows the service and is also very supportive.”
Today, Rear Adm. Ryan, her husband, Tim, and their daughter, Aisling, live
Being in charge, she says, means rising to challenges every day — proving to people that you are not only up to the task, but above it.