Posted by PA2 Cynthia Oldham, Saturday, February 21, 2015
Story and photos by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cynthia Oldham
Coast Guard Fireman Shirlanda Charles is a crewmember at Coast Guard Station Atlantic City, New Jersey, who began her military service with an uncommon perspective and a unique kind of patriotism.
When Charles enlisted in the U.S. military and solemnly swore to defend the Constitution of the United States, she dedicated her service to a country where she was not a citizen.
Charles was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, in the Caribbean just north of South America.
Charles was 16 years old in 2009 when she graduated from high school. The summer after she graduated, Charles traveled to New York City to visit her mother, who holds a U.S. residency card and works as a nurse.
“After visiting my mother in New York City, I decided to stay with her,” said Charles. “Initially, living in New York City was a culture shock, especially when the season changed and I experienced cold temperatures for the first time.”
Along with the challenge of acclimating to drastically different weather, Charles had to make a tough decision: since the education systems of Trinidad and Tobago and the U.S. are not aligned, Charles had to choose to attend high school again and earn a diploma from an American school, or to enroll in college.
Charles said she felt like she was too young for college, so she enrolled in Manhattan Comprehensive High School. In school, Charles quickly learned that weather and the education system were not the only cultural differences she would experience in America.
“I noticed the people who live in America have so much,” said Charles. “The main thing I noticed people have here, and I think sometimes take for granted, is opportunity. People in America have voices — it’s amazing! I started to think seriously about getting my U.S. citizenship.”
In addition to working on earning her citizenship, Charles attended college for a short time but said she was eager to get a job.
“I walked by a Coast Guard recruitment office one day,” said Charles. “I spoke with the recruiter who asked me if I wanted time to think about what I wanted to do — I knew what I wanted. I began the enlistment process and headed to basic training a few months later. The Coast Guard was my first job!”
In 2013, when Charles reported to basic training at the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, she faced many new and unique challenges.
“In basic training, we were not allowed to look anyone in their eyes,” said Charles. “Growing up in Trinidad, we are taught from a young age to look someone in their eyes as a sign of respect. I was yelled at a lot in basic training.”
Charles was also the designated female squad leader during basic training, giving her additional responsibility in an already stressful environment.
“Being a squad leader was a challenge for me because I had to quickly learn a lot about the Coast Guard and then teach my shipmates,” said Charles.
From basic training, Charles reported to Station Atlantic City where the unit’s command and crew eagerly anticipated her arrival.
“Charles’ reputation definitely preceded her coming out of boot camp,” said Lt. Cmdr. C.K. Moore, the commanding officer of Station Atlantic City. “Once she arrived, she hit the ground running and never looked back!”
After she arrived at the station, Charles faced a more personal challenge.
“I am the only black crewmember at the station besides Mr. Moore,” said Charles. “This was new for me. Almost everyone in Trinidad is black, and the population in New York is extremely diverse.”
Charles said when she first enlisted she heard there were not a lot of black individuals in the Coast Guard.
Of the approximately 42,000 active duty Coast Guard members, less than 6 percent are black — a statistic Charles says doesn’t hold her back but inspires her to charge forward.
“I realized being one of the two black people at the station is a positive,” said Charles. “At first, I felt like I didn’t fit in, but really this is a great opportunity for me to stand out.”
Charles did stand out. After a few months of hard work and studying, Charles earned every station qualification she could for her rank, including boarding team member. About a year after reporting to the station, Charles switched from seaman to fireman.
Changing her rank title allows Charles to pursue additional qualifications while she waits to attend training to become an information systems technician.
“I have learned a lot since I joined the Coast Guard,” said Charles. “I enjoy the respect people in the Coast Guard show each other, and the military structure is comforting in the way it reminds me of my strict upbringing in Trinidad.”
In addition to her devotion to Coast Guard duty, Charles passed her citizenship test in 2014 and became a permanent U.S. citizen.
Moore said Charles spent a lot of time studying for the test, and he would ask her U.S. history questions while they were underway.
“I was extremely proud when Charles obtained her citizenship last year,” said Moore. “She is one of the most dedicated and focused non-rates I have ever worked with.”
Charles said she takes pride in wearing the Coast Guard uniform.
“I am so proud to wear the Coast Guard uniform,” said Charles. “I do wish there were more black people in the Coast Guard, but I feel like I am in a position to someday be a great role model.”
Charles said she is grateful for the encouragement and support she gets from her mother and friends in New York, her family in Trinidad and Tobago and all her Coast Guard shipmates.