Gov. Linda Lingle's third annual International Women's Leadership Conference, "Women With No Limits," is being held today in Waikiki. The conference, which is all about inspiring and motivating Hawaii's women, hosts an impressive list of speakers from around the world, who have pushed the limits of success in their chosen fields, while making a difference globally, Lingle said.
Brice-O'Hara, a rear admiral in the Coast Guard, is the first women to head the service's District 14. She joined the Coast Guard just two years after it began letting women serve in 1973, and said she has watched the culture of the branch improve, though there is more work to be done.
Women who lead
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Brice-O'Hara oversees an operation of 29 units
Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara, the conference's keynote luncheon speaker, motivates folks closer to home as the first woman to head the U.S. Coast Guard's District 14.
Brice-O'Hara, who will be speaking on leadership and motivational women, said Gov. Linda Lingle was too persuasive to turn down when it came to a speaking request.
"Who says 'no' to the governor?" Brice-O'Hara said, adding that she is honored to join the ranks of such international dynamos and to share highlights of her Coast Guard career.
Brice-O'Hara, who was commissioned into the U.S. Coast Guard in 1975, just two years after the branch began letting women serve, said that she has enjoyed nearly every moment of her 31-year career.
"My only regret is that, as a senior officer, my career will soon be nearing an end," said Brice-O'Hara.
One of just three women serving in the Coast Guard to have ever attained her rank, Brice-O'Hara has earned four Legions of Merit, a Meritorious Service Medal, six Coast Guard Commendation Medals, a Coast Guard Achievement Medal, and the Commandant's Letter of Commendation.
She oversees an operation of 29 units performing missions in maritime safety, maritime mobility, protection of natural resources, maritime security, homeland security, and national defense in an area that covers 12.2 million square miles of the central Pacific Ocean.
Along the way, the 54-year-old native of Annapolis, Md., also found time to marry a fellow Coastie, Bob O'Hara, who retired as a commander after 23 years in the Coast Guard, and raise two sons.
"It's been a very good life," Brice-O'Hara said.
What was your first experience with bucking a traditional gender role?
After being commissioned into the Coast Guard, I was assigned to a district staff that had never had any women officers. At the time, there were plenty of guys who weren't used to having women officers and the culture wasn't as accepting of diversity as the Coast Guard is today. I had to prove myself as someone who was competent and willing to learn.
What was the climate like for women when you received your commission from Officer Candidate School in 1975?
Women had just started entering the active-duty Coast Guard in 1973, and many career paths were closed. We couldn't serve on ships or fly, although today women are able to do any job in the Coast Guard.
How did being one of the Coast Guard's female pioneers shape your life?
It showed me that there are certainly some areas of resistance and that it's very important to do your job well and not dwell on other people's attitudes. It's important to communicate through your initiative that you are capable and can hunker down and do the job. I learned the importance of being upbeat and positive.
Did you ever expect to rise to a rear admiral?
I'm not sure that I ever envisioned this, but it's definitely a dream to be here in this job with these responsibilities. I was sociology major in college and expected to become a social worker, but I worked with juveniles in the probation system during an internship and found it depressing. The Coast Guard allowed me to pursue my humanitarian interests.
What traits have propelled you to success?
A good sense of integrity and ethics is important. I also have embraced the Coast Guard core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty.
How has the modern-day Coast Guard improved for women?
More women and more women are in significant positions of responsibility and that's a sign to everybody that women in the work force aren't an anomaly. However, the biggest change has been in the day-to-day culture of our service. We are a better place to work. We treat people better because we've had to think about what it takes to operate as a team.
What are some changes within the Coast Guard that you'd still like to see happen for women?
We would like to see the percentage of women in the Coast Guard climb. Although women can do any job in the Coast Guard, we still have a number of ratings and career paths that are atypical of women's choices. We have to continue to educate women who are coming into the service about those opportunities.
How many other Coast Guard women have attained the command status that you have?
Right now, we have another woman in command of the 11th Coast Guard district, which covers the Southwestern United States. Her name is Rear Adm. Jody Breckenridge. The vice commandant of the Coast Guard is also a women. Her name is Vice Adm. Vivian Crea and she was my boss when I took over the 5th District. She's been a role model and an example.
What's the most difficult Coast Guard decision that you've ever had to make?
When the Bow Mariner exploded off the coast of Virginia in 2004 with a load of ethanol, I had to approve the rescue mission. There were many hazardous situations that night and I had to make the decision to clear putting our people into that environment. It was February and the air and water temperature were not conducive to survival. There were people in the water, strong fumes and questions about the safety of putting our own rescue people in the water. I got as much advice as I could get from the experts and collaborated with the people on the scene as to what they were experiencing and made the decision to insert our people and monitored their performance. We were able to save some of the crew members -- although we did not pick up everyone, not everyone we picked up was a survivor and we were unable to account for all people.
Name a woman who has inspired you.
Certainly my grandmother Elinor Ridout was inspirational. She lived to be 98 and was just a few months shy of her 99th birthday when she died. She was a very strong woman, who was very optimistic in her outlook and very caring of her family. She was as sharp as a tack right up until the end. I wish that I had her memory.