For the first time in its history, the Coast Guard Enlisted Association (CGEA) has elected an all-female board of directors. The newly installed president, Petty Officer First Class Yeoman Casey Lawrence, sat down with HSToday to discuss the job, her vision for the CGEA and their partnership with the Chief Petty Officers Association (CPOA).
Given we are in National Preparedness Month, it was striking to HSToday that YN1 Lawrence argues for enlisted members of the Coast Guard to join the CGEA as a means of preparing: for their careers, for disasters, for any eventuality where a network of people who care about one another may be needed.
HSToday: Thank you for sitting down with us. Congratulations on your installment as CGEA president. I guess my first question is really about the platform you ran on to become president and also your vision for how you’d like to see CGEA improve in the future.
Lawrence: The platform that I intended to run on – I actually ran unopposed – is that I think that this is something you grow into. When you take national office, it is because you’ve gained those experiences as a member, as a lower-level branch officer, as a branch president, and you grow into that role and have had such great role models that have made terrific changes in the Enlisted Association.
My first role models were Carly Beer and DC1 Michael Lewis: they really reformulated the Coast Guard Enlisted Association and their interaction with the Chief Petty Officers Association (CPOA). I want to take that a step further. I want to see a little more independence. I want to see some bigger fundraising initiatives at a national level. Get a little bit more of our own money, so we can put some of that out into the field and hopefully help some of our members come to convention.
There are a lot of needs across the country and we have branches that are getting together and taking care of a lot of members in need, and families in need. Most recently, we had a young petty officer stabbed in Belize and the CGEA helped out in that situation. We had another seaman who had to take on the responsibility of two small children when her parents passed away and all the debt that came along with them. And just in those small initiatives, we have been able to raise tens of thousands of dollars to assist our fellow enlisted.
I would like to get us to a point where we have our own initiatives so that when events happen we are ready. For example, we partnered with the CPOA and with Master Chief Vince Patton and the CGEA made huge contributions. I want to see more of that.
HSToday: When you are talking to other people, what is the relevance of CGEA for an enlisted in the Coast Guard?
Lawrence: The No. 1 question we get asked is, “What’s in it for me?” They see us out and see us fundraising and putting on a nice level of events to give back to our Coast Guard community, and see that our community is outside of the gates. They see all that and think, wow, that seems like a lot of work, but what’s in it for me? That’s kind of an unfortunate thing. I’m a believer and I believe that all of our national officers have the same opinion that we didn’t join the Coast Guard for the big bucks that we make! Ninety percent join because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They got themselves to that point by themselves. They walked into that recruiter, they went through boot camp, they did all of that of their own accord. This should be no different. If we propose it to them, and we say, hey, we are doing something bigger than ourselves. We are helping families, we are helping dependents, we are helping our communities, we are creating a fun environment where you can have lots of camaraderie, and that’s what’s in it for them.
They get to give back and have fun at the same time. The biggest bonus, in my opinion, is the camaraderie you have with the chiefs. Both active-duty, retired, I have learned so much at these conventions from people that have been retired for 30 years. I have learned more about my career moving forward through their careers when they were on active duty than I could ever get from anyone in active duty at my unit.
HSToday: They have really been through everything. So they truly understand, and with experience they have a 360-degree view.
Lawrence: Absolutely. Master Chief Andrew Hayden made a great comment today when he said there is nothing that the chiefs haven’t seen. You may think that there is, and you think, “I can’t believe this has happened to us in the Coast Guard,” and you mention it to one of these guys, and they are like, oh yeah, we’ve dealt with that. I like the experiences you get from it, and I have no problems with giving them a call up, or giving an active-duty chief a call up and saying, hey, I’ve got this going on, what do I do?
HSToday: So you always have people to turn to?
Lawrence: Definitely. And at a chapter level, I try to push that all the junior enlisted get mentored by our CPOA, whatever chapter is available to them, we kind of push them together as mentorships. So it’s not only about branch chapter business. It’s about personal business, it’s about finances, and it’s about how to raise kids and it’s all of those things that mentorship should be. Not just about your Coast Guard career, but a life mentor. I would say all of the CPOA that I’ve dealt with personally is really open to that.
HSToday: How do you see the CGEA supporting Coast Guard missions?
Lawrence: There are a number of ways. Hurricane relief is a really good example. The Coast Guard Foundation was so wonderful with their support to the communities that were devastated in last year’s hurricanes. We have one branch that raised I think it was $6,800 for that hurricane relief fund from the Coast Guard Foundation. I see things like that: they are raising money so that they can provide that relief. That is something that the Coast Guard may not have been able to do, like provide clothing for everyone. We are contributing to the missions of multiple government entities by doing things like that.
The Coast Guard is really focused on retaining women right now. They performed a women’s retention study in which I participated, and I think there is a large group of women that participated that are here at this year’s event. They are still working on the release, but a lot of us participated in that because we are very passionate about keeping women in the Coast Guard and finding out why they are leaving. Having been part of that focus group myself, I learned things that other women are experiencing, and I haven’t had the same experiences. I think that when you see four women leading an organization like the CGEA, it empowers women to know that they can stay in and they can do other things. I think that that goes directly to the retention piece of it. It’s really helping the Coast Guard missions.
HSToday: A lot of associations, including veteran service organizations, are having trouble maintaining membership and gaining memberships. Is there anything that you look at and say, ‘Some of that is really going to have to change to attract the young people, or maintain our membership’?
Lawrence: I think for the CGEA we’re booming, and you see the numbers that even one branch put up this year; it’s incredible. People want a community and when passionate people are out there speaking about our organization, it’s easy to get on board with passion. If you are up there and you are reading it like a phone book, it’s really hard to make that happen. What I think would attract more CGEA members is to have more current active-duty, brand-new chiefs in there that can mentor that E4 and show them, “I’m new here, this is how I got here.” I will tell you that a lot of those brand new E7s are so motivated to be a mentor.
HSToday: So what attracted you to want to be a leader in CGEA?
Lawrence: My mentor, John Rocksor, really guided me on this path at the very beginning, and he said, if you do nothing else for me in your career, please just join the CGEA and become a member of the CPOA because it will change the trajectory of your entire career. So I did that.
In my first unit, it was a small unit just getting started, I didn’t really get involved very much. Then in my next unit, I met Carly Beer, who was the former president, and she really got me motivated. I grew up volunteering, but she was putting it into action with multiple people. She was bringing in people from other units and from around our area in Tidewater and she got me involved in some veterans’ initiatives at the VA hospital, and I just became so passionate about anything that had to do with CGEA. And she said, if you do nothing else for me, come to Norfolk, come to our first convention, and I promise you, it’s going to explode for you. At that point I was the president down in Elizabeth City. I said all right, I will give it a shot. Being around the business of the CPOA and the CGEA was so empowering. Meeting everyone, I loved it. Getting to know everybody, they were like, “EWe need a treasurer and you are it”. I said give it to me!
HSToday: Oh, no that’s the worst job!
Lawrence: Oh no, because we didn’t have any funds. So I said, that’s fine, I really want to do something, I just don’t want to sit by, so I created a social media chairperson and that became the role of the treasurer. I really focused my efforts on that and I handled all fundraising questions from the branches and things like that. I did some national initiatives in that role, so I think that it was the next logical step to move up.
A colleague and I sat down and had a conversation. We were such good friends and we didn’t want to run against each other. We just saw it as my natural progression; my colleague said ‘go for it,’ and I did!