Celebrating women’s history in the Coast Guard

Lt. Cmdr. Kerry Karwan poses for a photo at the Old Coast Guard Station museum in Virginia Beach, Va. Karwan donated two of her uniforms for an exhibit featuring women in the Coast Guard. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jasmine Mieszala

Lt. Cmdr. Kerry Karwan poses for a photo at the Old Coast Guard Station museum in Virginia Beach, Va. Karwan donated two of her uniforms for an exhibit featuring women in the Coast Guard.

Story and photos by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jasmine Mieszala

“I’ll give you the clothes off my back.”

It is a saying of generosity and altruism, but for one woman, it has a different meaning.

Though she’s not literally giving someone the clothes she’s currently wearing, Lt. Cmdr. Kerry Karwan, the logistics department head at the incident management assistance team in Norfolk, Virginia, has donated some of her uniforms to the Old Coast Guard Station Museum in Virginia Beach, Virginia, for an exhibit honoring women in the Coast Guard.

“My husband and I walk the dog every morning and night along the beach,” said Karwan. “One day we caught them before closing and stopped in because we’ve been wanting to check the museum out. After walking around, I’d asked them where they got most of their items on display, and I was told they were donated.”

Karwan contacted the director of the museum to begin discussing how she can donate some of her uniforms for the exhibit.

Kathryn Fisher poses in front of the women's history exhibit at the Old Coast Guard Station museum in Virginia Beach, Va.

Kathryn Fisher poses in front of the women’s history exhibit at the Old Coast Guard Station museum in Virginia Beach, Va.

“I realized, with my participation in the exhibit there was a real opportunity to spread the word about women in uniform,” said Karwan.

Women performed the duties of Coast Guardsmen long before there was actually a Coast Guard. After the establishment of the Coast Guard, women began to pave the way for future generations of women to come.

In the 1830s, women were first officially assigned as keepers in the Lighthouse Service, though many women had been doing the same duties previously. Fifty-one years later, Ida Lewis, keeper of Lime Rock Lighthouse, became the first woman to be awarded a Gold Lifesaving Medal. During her time as a keeper, Lewis is credited with saving 18 lives.

During WWII, the Women’s Reserve, officially nicknamed the SPARS was established. A total of 978 female officers and 11,868 female enlisted served in the SPARS during World War II. In 1973, congressional legislation ended the Women’s Reserve and women were first officially integrated into the active-duty Coast Guard and Coast Guard Reserve.

Pictured here are personal items Lt. Cmdr. Kerry Karwan donated to the Old Coast Guard Station museum in Virginia Beach, Va., for an exhibit on women's history in the Coast Guard.

Pictured here are personal items Lt. Cmdr. Kerry Karwan donated to the Old Coast Guard Station museum in Virginia Beach, Va., for an exhibit on women’s history in the Coast Guard.

The exhibit at the Old Coast Guard Station highlights the history of women in the Coast Guard, starting with the keepers in the Lighthouse Service and ending with modern day achievements. The exhibit also features historical photos and documents, previous and current uniforms, personal items and an original SPAR recruiting poster.

“We already had older versions of the working and dress uniforms,” said Kathryn Fisher, executive director of the Old Coast Guard Station museum. “They had been donated to us in the past.”

Karwan donated her operational dress uniform as well as her service dress blue uniform to show a comparison between past and present uniforms.

“It’s good for women to see there have been women before them and they can succeed and do these jobs,” said Karwan.

Both uniforms, as well as some personal photos and items are on display in the exhibit until May 17.

“We have been a part of this organization and the service, and we’ve contributed toward all the missions in the Coast Guard, ” said Karwan. “Women need to be proud of that, especially the ones who paved the way for us. We’re still here, following in their footsteps.”