Deborah Dombeck, of Illinois and now of Kerrville, served on active duty in the United States Coast Guard 1978-84 and 1988-91, and in the USCG Reserves in between.
“The Coast Guard opened their officer and enlisted ranks to women in the late 1970s,” she said.
In observance of Women Veterans Day, June 12, she shared her story.
Dombeck said officially, the Coast Guard was governed under the U.S. Department of Transportation (and later Homeland Security). Among their duties are boarding ships to search for smuggled things and people, she said.
She attended OCS, and served on different kinds of ships, doing varied duties. One of her early bosses asked her what she knew about the Coast Guard; and she told him truthfully, “Not much.” He said that was the right answer.
One of her assignments was an “extended tour” of six to eight months on the Coast Guard cutter Glacier, starting the summer of 1980.
“I was working in a Long Beach, Calif., recruiting office and it wasn’t as fulfilling as I’d hoped. But while I was there, the cutter/ice breaker was there and going to Antarctica; and I had some conversations with them. They had great stories about ‘liberty ports,’ and told me there were 200 men and about 20 women on board.”
Dombeck requested and got assigned to the Glacier when she was 24; and was the most senior woman of 20 on board. She met husband Ralph Lewis on that ship.
“I learned a lot about men on that assignment. I was low on the pecking order, but to the younger women on board I was the competition and they were very competitive,” she said. “I had enthusiasm but not much practice at parts of the job.”
Dombeck said the cutter’s main task was to open a 15-mile channel through ice (sometimes 10 feet thick) in the Ross Sea to McMurdo Station, and two other U.S. research stations in Antarctica.
“Antarctica isn’t a ‘country’ claimed by any one country; and we went there to open the channel that allowed the Military Sealift Command to resupply the three bases there,” she said. “We were limited to Jan. 1-10; and the ship became a floating research station for animal, geology and water studies.
“One of my duties was to go aloft to the ‘mast-conn,’ the crow’s nest that was a half-circle, and work with the engine-ordered telegraph rudder. That gave me all controls of the 8,000-ton ship and a 360-degree view. The ship was painted red, because if it was white, it wouldn’t be visible against all that ice. From the mast-conn, you could see the peak of the volcano there; and all the marine life come up in the channel, the killer whales, seals and penguins,” she said. “I told my parents that was a ‘cold icy heaven.’ It was a six-month trip and I did it twice.
“Communication from there was the MARS system, ham radio operators. It wasn’t instant and sometimes not reliable. And we were isolated from U.S. and world events,” Dombeck said. “But I called Antarctica my first incredible experience.”
Other assignments were as a liaison to European Command at Stuttgart, Germany; Hawaii; three trips on joint service tours; traveling in 2002 to Iraq at the start of Operation Freedom; and an assignment at McGill AFB, Fla.
She learned about “swim call” when everyone was expected to jump 40 feet from the ship’s deck into the ocean, and climb back up a “Jacob’s ladder” rope to get back on deck. The climb was the hard part, she said.
She married her husband Ralph Lewis in 1983. He was a helicopter pilot also in the Coast Guard. His work specialty meant there were a limited number of bases where he could be assigned. Hers was more general.
“So the CG Reserves was a blessing for me and for us. When he was stationed in New Orleans, I got a three-year contract to fill in for a mental health person and do it in uniform. Later I was called up to serve in St. Louis, Mo., during and after a summer flood.”
She said she first decided she would serve her 20 years until 1998 and retire. But she was told she would have to wait a longer period to begin receiving those payments, because most of her active-duty service was in the Reserves.
“Between 1999 and 2009, I did a lot of active duty, working at times in one of the nine ‘Transportation Commands.’ Some of that was because of the 9-11 events and also was ‘joint service’ working with the Air Force, Army and Navy.”
By 1998 she saw many other women serving, too; and she’d been promoted to Commander, the CG equivalent of a Lieutenant Colonel.
“I was assigned to four active-duty stints between 2000 and 2009; and three of those were joint mobilizations with other branches of service, while one was only Coast Guard personnel. That was a door that I didn’t previously realize was there; and I got to go through it,” she said.
She said as a small service, the Coast Guard became a “jack of all trades.”
Her husband retired in 1992; and they moved to Houston for a couple years. They moved to Kerrville in 1994.
“As a young person, I had plans for a master’s degree in counseling and eventually a private practice. But I also wanted adventures, to see the world, to make a little money and save a little money. My dad and granddad both served in the military; and I felt it was my patriotic duty, too.”
Advice for young people
Dombeck and Lewis had an opportunity to lead and advise Tivy High School Air Force JROTC students; and Dombeck has been a schoolteacher. Her advice for young people includes:
• Look for open doors and go through; experience what’s there; it usually leads to more open doors;
• Be willing to get out of your comfort zone; try new things; stretch yourself;
• Be early to things;
• Unexpected things are going to happen;
• If you say you will do something, do it;
• Be responsible for your decisions, but listen to others, too.
She also works with the Youth Leadership Conference at Schreiner University, organized by the Military Order of the World Wars here. That’s planned June 27-July 1, with about 50 high school juniors and seniors from across Texas.
Dombeck’s story also is included in John F. Aceti’s book, “Women Warriors – They Too Have Served.”