Commodore Mary Kirkwood rose through the ranks of Auxiliary leadership over a twenty year-period by leveraging her forty years of nursing experience and her passion for teaching. Her initial entry to the National Bridge started with her term as Deputy National Commodore, Operations & Pacific Area. Her Auxiliary experience in operations and network of commodores made the transition from district leadership seamless. She then made history on November 1, 2022, starting a term as the first female Vice National Commodore of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Her success and leadership are an inspiration to us all and will guide future generations of auxiliarists towards leadership. COMO Kirkwood agreed to do a virtual Zoom interview with the Auxiliary’s Public Affairs Directorate prior to the 2023 NTRAIN in honor of Women’s History Month:

1. What inspired you to join the Auxiliary in 2002?

I was drawn to serve in the Auxiliary in the aftermath of the tragic events of 9/11. I had a profound sense of patriotism, especially being a girl scout all of my life and wanting to give back throughout my whole life. I felt I had to do something and make the world a little better. We were all hurting in those few months and it motivated me to join and ultimately become boat crew qualified in a few month period. I also had two really good friends in the Auxiliary and heard great things of what they accomplished. What I came to realize very quickly is that we are the eyes along the vast coast line in the San Francisco Bay area. There are several active duty and reserve units in the area, but they rotate every two years. We are here all the time, and sometimes for our entire lives. We are that consistent presence that can always be called upon. Last thing I will say is that I love the training, camaraderie and fellowship in the Auxiliary.


2. What was your best Auxiliary-related experience in over 20+ years of service?

Highlights for me include moving up the chain over the past few decades focusing on member training and public education. I was a district staff officer for member training for several years. I love helping people get another competency or qualification. It comes down to understanding what they are struggling with and helping them achieve their goal. I love the challenge of finding ways to connect with people. I also love the people – as I mentioned, my two good friends are still here and have 25-30 years each in the Auxiliary. The friendships and teamwork to solve issues such as towing a boat or explaining another course make this all worth the time. Over the years, I have loved seeing people excel, look good and feel good for what they are doing.

I have also had some fun times on night patrols where we would get wet and cold. But we had fun and would laugh with our shipmates. Even later, every time we bring the seas stories up, we start laughing. Those are the memories that you hold on to.


3. How have the first five months of the term gone as the first woman to serve as VNACO in the Auxiliary?

It has been a steep learning curve. My scope of work has expanded more and more. Going from DCO to DNACO was a big jump and required getting to know the other districts, but I knew the role. The VNACO position is more involved than I thought. There is no official job description and most folks down the chain don’t know what I do. But I am enjoying it now more than three months ago when I was just getting my bearings. I really appreciate working with the NACO, COMO Gus Formato. His insight into inclusion and supporting women in our organization is paramount. I look forward to helping him implement the strategic plan over the next two years.

I will say that it’s been interesting for sure, especially meeting new people. I attended District 5NR’s D-Train, and will attend District 8ER’s D-Train in April. Every district does something a little different even though we all follow the AUXMAN. I would like to find a way to harvest all of these best practices from each district and share them across the country.


4. What have we done well for women in the Auxiliary as an organization? Are there areas where we can do better?

Advancing women into senior leadership positions is what the Auxiliary has done well recently. COMO Linda Merryman has been a DNACO for over a decade, and then me as DNACO and VNACO. I was elected from a pool of two strong male candidates. I think my election may be a message for the future of our organization; that women are respected and women can make it to high leadership positions. With me in this role and any woman in this role, it gives our more junior Auxiliary leaders hope that they can get there too.

We have not done well in some areas. I have heard stories of women being blocked from elections as FCs or other positions in flotilla leadership. Since the flotilla is the entry point, these women are then shut out of leadership forever. I have also heard stories of coxswains saying they will not allow females on their boats. These stories are not great and we are working on getting to a point where this does not happen.

As an organization, we need to focus on inclusion. It is part of our National Commodore’s watch words and is a key imperative in the 2023-2024 National strategic plan recently published by our NACO. We have an Auxiliary representative on the U.S. Coast Guard’s Women’s Leadership Initiative. We are making women more aware of opportunities and will support them as we go forward. We need to make sure they are getting the support they need and clear any obstacles. We cannot tolerate any roadblocks when moving forward in lifting up women and other minority communities.


5. I have heard of women-driven and focused training, fellowship and mentorship opportunities that are being considered by leadership, is that in process?

We are working on something that is in the beginning phases. We are forming an advisory group to help us become more inclusive for women and other minority communities. We have had one meeting thus far and the goals are to provide support and training. We do not want to exclude anyone. Is there a need for training women – yes! There is a huge opportunity to improve our mentorship programs at all levels. Our Training Directorate is revising our mentorship program and following in the footsteps of the active duty who recently revised their program. The Commandant is set on trying to build our talent in the Coast Guard.

It comes down to finding out how we can help support our minority communities at the lower levels. The main thing is to make sure people are getting to obtain what they want – certification, qualification or position. Mentorship is the key for that. Every person in the Auxiliary has something to give. We need to try to match people with mentors who can help them achieve their goals. The initial advisory group will be expanded into a broader working group that will ensure representation from diverse groups in our membership.


6. What can the Auxiliary do to recruit more women into the Auxiliary?

Targeted recruiting is the key right now. We need chaplains, so we recruit from theology institutes. We need food service, so we target those culinary schools. We are in need of research to see how other volunteer organizations draw women and then we can tap into that. Perhaps we could find a way to recruit from women’s sorority programs. We also need to focus on retention. 20% of our members are female. We cannot afford to lose our workforce. Mentorship is key. From exit interviews, we have learned that most people leave in the first two years due to leadership in the flotilla. Nobody helped them succeed. Mentorship can help retain, while targeted recruiting can help supplement areas that we are looking for. The International Affairs Directorate is a good example of that – they have a list of languages that are missing in their arsenal, so they do targeted recruiting to find interpreters.


7. What should be the underlying theme or guidepost for 2023?  The basic goal that should guide every decision of an elected or appointed leader from the National Staff down to the deck plate?

We have talked a lot about it today, but the main initiative should be inclusion. That will help us with recruitment and retention. The more we include people and recruit/retain our talent, the better off we will be. For all decisions, leaders should ask themselves whether it advances inclusion. Decisions should be made to lift people up and help our members succeed.


8. What is your vision for the Auxiliary in this immediate term and beyond?

We are going to see some changes in the next two years. Our NACO wants to ensure we are prepared for the future. Inclusion will help strengthen the Auxiliary by ensuring we have talent to support new missions and activities. We are working on a new mentorship program that will help our members become more productive. We also want to make sure our members are ready – we are augmenting our Training Directorate for new missions. We also must adjust leadership training at every level to take on new projects and missions. RBS will always be our #1 mission, but we are being tasked to do more and need to be ready for the next set of missions. If we don’t expand and extend our skill set, we won’t be able to answer the call from the Coast Guard. I am glad that our Directorates are working with their counterparts at Coast Guard HQ – finding out what is coming down the line and building the skills and training necessary for it.

We are one Coast Guard – one big family of talented members and need to make sure we have skill sets that are competitive and help us in the future. We cannot sit back on our laurels.

It is an incredible time to be an Auxiliarist. We are being asked to do things that we couldn’t have imagined five years ago. We need to be ready for the next challenge and growth will be crucial for our organization to remain relevant. As we do more, we will have more success in recruitment. We need to target different groups with different skillsets. Each of the Directorates have their work cut out for them – we are being asked to do more and more. But I know our members are up to it – when you give them a task, they will find the way. We are 21,000 strong and an active force multiplier for the Coast Guard.

by John Saran, AUXPA1, DIR-ADP