What does it take to become a Rear Admiral in the Coast Guard? Check out Rear Admiral Melissa Bert's story this week on the Women of the Military Podcast. Melissa decided to join the Coast Guard because her dad had served in the Coast Guard and suggested she look into it. She attended the Coast Guard Academy and at the time there were only 10% women. Today there are approximately 30%.
Her first assignment was out at sea tour. She was on a smaller vessel so she would be out at sea for one to four weeks depending on the work they were doing. She was the only female on the ship she was assigned to and she found time at sea to be very lonely because she couldn’t spend time with anyone on her ship. She was thankful the rotations were short.
After that tour, she was selected to become attend Law School in the DC area. While attending Law School she had the opportunity to attend social events at the White House. Her favorite event she attended was when Bill Clinton brought Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to the White House to sign an agreement that strengthens Israeli security and expanded the area of Palestinian control in the West Bank. She said she saw Katie Couric at the event and had a chance to talk to her and she told her how nervous she was. She said attending that event was so cool because it was watching history take place right in front of her eyes.
She was stationed in Long Beach on September 11th and worked to help secure the port in Long Beach. She discussed how they quickly began to implement changes to help ensure the safety of the port. September 11th had a huge impact on how the Coast Guard secured the borders and our ports and there continue to be changes and improvements made to this day.
She was given the opportunity to take command in Juneau, Alaska. The Commander was being relieved due to a toxic environment. She went into the role and was able to change the culture. The senior enlisted members (Chiefs) wanted the opportunity to lead so she gave them the task of consolidating the base and was blown away by the results. Another interesting project was safely removing an old cruise ship that had sunk in the 1950s and was beginning to leak oil. They worked together as a team to work to remove the hazard of having a huge spill in the Harbor.
Melissa assumed she wouldn’t make Admiral the summer she was selected and had begun to start looking for her next step in her career outside of the military. She ended up getting selected and moved to Colorado Springs to work at NorthCom. At the same time, she was getting married and adopted their daughter. She and her new husband were separated and stayed connected through traveling back and forth and relying on the support of the on-base childcare. It was a crazy time. And after being separated for four years of being separated her husband has been able to move to be with his family. With COVID and all the travel limitations, it has been a blessing to be together.
Melissa felt it was important to bring women together when she was part of the US Coast Guard Alumni. She realized many women were not participating and if they were they didn’t see themselves as a leader of the organization. She wanted to help build comradery and help empower women so she created XXX. The organization has now expanded and is working to bring more positive changes to women within the service. It shows the power of bringing women together and how real change can happen.
Melissa is currently a Rear Admiral in the US Coast Guard. She currently serves as the Judge Advocate General and Chief Counsel of the Coast Guard. She leads a dedicated group of 500 legal professionals who are responsible for the delivery of all legal services in support of the Coast Guard's missions, its units, and its people. She ended the interview talk about how the military changed the course of her life. And if you are planning to serve in the military know that you will change.
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Check out the full transcript here.
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Welcome to Episode 112 of the Women of the Military podcast. This week my guest is Rear Admiral Melissa Bert. She is currently serving in the US Coast Guard and she currently serves as the Judge Advocate General and Chief Counsel of the Coast Guard. She leads a dedicated group of 500 legal professionals who are responsible for delivery of all legal services in support of the Coast Guard's missions, its units and its people. I really enjoy getting to talk to you Melissa about her experience in the Coast Guard she attended at the Coast Guard Academy when there were only 10% women and today there are approximately 30% woman and she has been assigned to a number of different interesting assignments. She also talked about her experience on September 11, and how the Coast Guard changed. And she also talked about the work that she has been doing to help provide advocacy for women who are serving in the military, and what she's doing today. So there's a lot to get into. So let's get started. You're listening to season three of the women on the military podcast Here you will find the real stories of female servicemembers. I'm Amanda Huffman, I am an Air Force veteran, military spouse and mom. I created women in the military podcast in 2019. As a place to share the stories of female service members past and present, with the goal of finding the heart of the story, while uncovering the triumphs and challenges women face while serving in the military. If you want to be encouraged by the stories of military women and be inspired to change the world. Keep tuned for this latest episode of women on the military. Welcome to the show, Melissa, I'm excited to have you here.
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 02:09
Thank you. It's an honor to be here.
So let's start with why did you decide to join the military?
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 02:15
I was in school in Atlanta, Georgia. My father was a civil rights lawyer. My mom's a teacher. And my father thought it would be cool. He was in the Coast Guard at the end of World War Two. He's 93 now and he liked the idea that the Coast Guard does good things for Americans. And I didn't really just because he suggested it. And I there was a cover of a magazine, the Smithsonian I think that I saw with a woman on a sailboat, who was a Coast Guard Academy cadet, and it looked really cool, because I had never sailed before or really been on the water at all. So it was so it looks so exotic to me. And kind of like it would be an exciting experience. So I went to the Coast Guard Academy. And that's how I came into the service.
And I know that Coast Guard Academy today is really elite and like one of the hardest academies to get into at least that's what Coast Guard Academy graduate told me. What was it like the process of applying and attending the Coast Guard Academy.
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 03:18
So the application process is actually a little easier than the other service academies because it's not appointment based. But the result of that, I guess, is that people tend to go there who are from New England, and they're sort of accustomed to that sailboat, sailing lifestyle, and people from Florida and the West Coast. It's not, although we do have some people from the Midwest, it's probably more of a coastal attraction. But we're doing really well in terms of more women. Now, when I went there were only 10% women, which was not, that's not a good, dynamic. It's great to be more CO Ed. Now we're over 30% women. So that's been a big factor in making the academy more of a college than just a military institution. That's very old school.
Yeah, that's a big change. And it's so exciting to hear that more women are looking into the Coast Guard and attending the academy and it's just probably changing the whole Coast Guard as a whole with that many women instead of
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 04:22
It is and the dynamic to from Title Nine, I forgot about that. That was really a game changer for women. Because once you start spending the same amount on sports for women, as for men, all of a sudden, we have we have unbelievable women athletes there now. I mean, some folks who are gonna be on the Olympic US Olympic team later. I mean, it's just it's attracted women who ordinarily might not be interested in going to a smaller Academy or military academy, but now they realize that they'll be able to compete nationally and internationally and the funding is there just as it is for their male counterparts. So that's that's been a big a big change as well.
Yeah, that's really cool. So after you graduated, what did you do next?
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 05:08
So I spent my first two tours on the water, I was assigned to two different ships, the first ship was operated out of Charleston. And we worked in the southeastern United States. And then in the Caribbean, we did aids to navigation, mainly. But we also did some occasional search and rescue and a little bit of law enforcement. But it was mostly a navigation vessel, which meant we worked in the harbors, and the ports and Savannah and Charleston, and then down in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. So it was really a great way to start my career.
And were you on a rotational sea duty where you were like out for three months and then home? Or?
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 05:48
That's a good question. So I purposely chose a small vessel that did this kind of work, because I liked going home. And I just knew the lifestyle for me, was not going to be great being underway for long periods, because you're the only I was the only woman on both ships I served aboard, which is just not a great dynamic. So the first ship I served on was, usually we'd go out for a few days or a week, when we went to the Caribbean, we would go out for maybe three or four weeks, but we were pulling into ports and breaking it up a little bit that made it a little more doable. It was I guess you'd say it's a lonely experience, I think at sea for women, unless you're with, you know, your friendship group, because you have to be very careful on who you're socializing with. So I did not socialize with members of the crew or the wardroom, really much at all, in the four years that I spent at sea.
Yeah, it's an interesting dynamic to talk about, because a lot of women who deploy to face a similar circumstance, they're not the only woman, but they might be the only, like, female officer and their unit or just the dynamics and how challenging and being lonely is something that is talked about a lot on the podcast.
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 07:04
That's interesting. And one of the things we're trying to grapple with is I'm personally concerned about retaining women in a service when the expectation is that people don't date at the same units. And yet, that's where people are meeting. And so, you know, it concerns me if people are hiding relationships and living kind of a double life, I, I don't think that's healthy. And I also don't know that relationships between peers are as destructive as the illicit relationships that happen when you don't allow any dating. So I'm something I've been thinking about over over the past few years is how, how do we deal with reality in a more productive way, so that we are both addressing people's needs and ensuring that we have a good you know, a good focus in the service, I don't want to, you know, have something where we don't respect core values. And that can go either way.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. When my husband and I started dating and ROTC nobody knew for like, the first year, and it was because when we were doing ROTC stuff we like stayed apart. And then occasionally people would see us on campus, but we kept it hidden. Like no one really knew for about six months to a year that we were dating, and then I don't remember what happened. So
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 08:26
It seems to work out.
So yeah, we've been married. Yeah, 14 years. So
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 08:32
Yeah. Great. So after that assignment, what was your next role?
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 08:36
So after I had two tours at sea, the Coast Guard sent me to law school. So I went full time to GW in Washington, DC. And during that time, I was a student during the summers, I was an intern in our different legal offices. And I also had the pleasure of being a White House fellow during the my, my free time, I guess you could say, and that was just a social, basically, you're just a social a, not a White House, fellow White House social aid. And so you go to these events and help out and they like having military people at the White House because it lends a formality to events. So for me, that was just an amazing experience. And I met a lot of other great military officers, men and women during that time. So that was wonderful.
That sounds really cool. Do you have like a favorite event that you got to be a part of or story that you can share from your time at the White House?
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 09:28
I think I remember the most was I was there working the event when President Clinton was going to bring Yasser Arafat and Rabin from Israel together. And it was a big event. It was outside and I saw Katie Couric was one of the broadcaster's covering it and I saw her and I said, I love I love your coverage of different things. I'm a big fan of yours. And she said, I'm so nervous. This is such an exciting event. I thought, oh my god. Katie Couric is even feeling this, this excitement. So I remember that. And I remember watching thinking I have like, you know, first row seat in history, and watching the the president kind of push them together to try to get them to commit to working together. And it was just amazing. I just felt like I'm, I'm standing here during something that will never happen again, in our history. It never has happened. So it was, that's my memory. probably my biggest memory.
I mean, that's pretty cool. Yeah, it's really cool. That's so awesome. It's so interesting to hear about. That's so cool. So after you graduated from law school, then what was the next step in your career?
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 10:42
So that was so much fun. I went to a legal office, down in Miami. And we dealt with all kinds of, I would say, all kinds of issues, but I like the drugs and the thugs, as I called them. So I did a lot of the law enforcement advice. And this was an exciting time for the Coast Guard. And for the State Department as well. We were negotiating all of these agreements with countries in the Caribbean to work with them. So that involved using basically we could patrolling their waters. We had ship writers, sometimes sometimes we just had agreements that if we found people, we would notify them and they would give us permission to you know, decide who's gonna prosecute, but a lot of these negotiations with the Caribbean countries and they were kind of new that now we have, we have 45 and it's not we exercise them all the time we've been updating them, but back then it was new and exciting. And I remember one particular case in the British Virgin Islands in Tortola, where they wanted help because they hadn't done a British prosecution under one of these agreements before. And so they asked me to come and work with them. We're in a courtroom. And you can just kind of picture this a small Caribbean island, a Tortola a courtroom with a picture of the queen, the judges wear the wig. And there was just this tiny little courtroom in the Caribbean where the British were doing a prosecution of a drug case that they had done with a American law enforcement detachment on one of their British ships. So it was really interesting. I had a great good time. During that tour, I did some courts martial as well, I was a prosecutor, and I was one of those people who would get probably way too involved with victims. It was, for me, being a prosecutor was very meaningful. I had a wonderful experience, getting to know people and working with our agents who are wonderful. So it was a, it was a really fun tour, I was learning a lot learning how to be an officer as a jag and learning how to just take on different responsibilities were basically they were sort of uncharted territory, we were also using some new equipment to detect drug residue, which now is very common equipment, but at the time, it was new. And so I also would go to federal court to try to make sure that the evidence could be used. So is there's just a lot of it was that was an exciting tour. For me, it was four years, and it was just one. one new thing after another. I learned a lot. I had so much fun. I love being part of the legal program in the Coast Guard. So much of what the Coast Guard does is based on authorities. So our our lawyers are involved in everything. And I'm glad I went down that path.
Yeah, it sounds really interesting. And I think sometimes when you think of like lawyers, they think of like court marshals, and I don't think I've thought about what else do military lawyers do. But I know there's so much more because when I was in Afghanistan, I had to go find a lawyer to do a play. And I know he was doing lots of different stuff. ployed. And so I know there's so many aspects. So it's interesting to hear your perspective of what you're doing, especially for the Coast Guard, because I think a lot of people, it's like a mystery around what the Coast Guard does.
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 14:06
Yes, we're more you know that we're not the same. I think some of people think we're like a mini Navy, but we're not at all, like the Navy of a lot of what we do is maritime shipping, regulating shipping, Port security, all those things are, are just wrapped in legal authorities. So our operational lawyers, and I say operations, meaning any kind of operation, whether it's inspecting a vessel or whether it's doing law enforcement, or search and rescue, all of those things require some understanding of what you're allowed to do and what you're not allowed to do because we're not doing things that are just based on a military order. So you know, in the in the army, the Air Force, you're looking at an order from above to say you can do these things, but for Coast Guard people, they're doing things every day in their communities, whether it's responding to an oil spill or whatever it is, they have to know what authorities they have when they show up on the scene. So it's relying on people to think about things and to know, what they are allowed to do what's permissible and what they should do.
Yeah. And one of the things I wanted to talk about you were on active duty when September 11 happened, right? I was, yeah, I'd love to hear about what that day was like, and if and how the Coast Guard changed during the response. And after
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 15:27
Everything changed. So that day, I was stationed in the port of LA, and Long Beach, and I was driving up to the Channel Islands to visit one of our stations. I think that morning. And of course, the timing is a little different, because we're three hours earlier. But I was driving up and I started hearing this news. And just so perplexed, like, it just didn't seem real. And I remember calling my, my boss at the time, and I said, I'm going to come come home, and we'll come back. And I got back to the unit. And our command, it was a pretty large command. And we we basically showed up would say, an incident commander unified command, we call it we we have terminology that the rest of military doesn't use this necessarily, but the federal government does this sort of thing where you're able to deal with an emergency by bringing people in who have different skill sets. So we knew that everything was changing, and we had to deal with the port because the port is a place that you want to make sure that you keep opened during an emergency, but it's also you want to protect it from vulnerabilities. So that day we we sort of started standing at this command. And that evening, we called together a kind of town hall, we call the industry together, the port officials, the immigration, customs, all of the folks that FBI, anybody who is a stakeholder sort of in that region, and we set up this town hall and we talked about what we think we needed to do. And we incorporated all of them in this process. And we decided we needed to that all of these vessels that were coming into the port, make sure they were safe. And we did a combination of we had these boarding teams go out with some law enforcement, Coast Guard, and they would check out the vessels basically. And then we started running information about the passengers and crew lists before they came to the port and start doing a lot of a lot of different things. But it was all ad hoc. I mean, we were just coming up with things that we needed to do, because there was no really no rules for this. So we did that. I think I was probably I don't know, when I finally went home to get some sleep. But I remember sleeping on the floor of my office for a couple of nights. But we we got everything kind of going in this rhythm. We had some really funny experiences early on, we had some intelligence about this ship coming in that might have something dangerous aboard and so the FBI put together this, they had a SWAT team with some dogs that we're gonna bring on board, we plan this little operation with them, we brought them down we brought our our station with the the boats that were going to take them out to this ship before it came into port at the dogs had never been at sea before. So they would not get on the boat. It was funny. They were they were like what are you doing to me. So that was kind of an amusing experience. But in general, it was exciting, because once again, it was new sort of uncharted territory. And it paved the way for major international changes in Port security. And of course, for the United States. When we incorporated it, it became the maritime Transportation Security Act. So it gave us even more authority to sort of look at what's going on in a port and take action and also to have information in advance from any any foreign company any any shipping that's coming into the state. So it was a really a landmark in 911 changed a lot for us. We moved into the Department of Homeland Security when it was created. But it really changed the Coast Guard significantly. It was I knew that was what was going to happen. Not that I knew we were going to go into the Department of Homeland Security. But I think probably everybody who is alive on that day and was watching the news knew that America would never be the same. It was just so harrowing and so confusing. Like what, what on earth could be happening? So that's what I remember if 911
Yeah, I've been to the Long Beach port. Well, I guess I haven't been there. But I've driven over the bridge, and I've seen it. And it's huge. And just to hear you talk about like all the changes and like going to see the ships. It's not like one or two ships. There's so many ships and so if you've never been there and you're listening, it's so big. I don't really know how to explain. It's just so big, like there's this big long bridge and there's Just all these containers everywhere. And I mean, it's really cool to see but I just if you're listening, you don't really know like the size, it's just so big
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 20:09
it is it's massive and trying to Tuesday trying to track all of these containers and and, you know, ensure that they're safe. It's an unending mission. And I don't know that we'll ever be able to guarantee that every container is safe. But we've come a long way from where we were. And a lot of that is requiring the businesses who ship the containers to be responsible. So they seal them in a certain way, if a seal is broken, then that's a problem. There's, there's a lot of things that we've done internationally to help with, we call it I guess, supply chain security, all of that happens as a result of 911.
Yeah, that's something that I never really thought about, about how the port system change. And I think we always think of like, Oh, we went to war, but then there was so much stuff, and the Coast Guard because they protect us, it's so interesting to hear your perspective on how that changed everything. So it's really cool to talk about. So I don't want to skip everything in your career. But I want to see if there's anything between September 11. And when we you became a Well, I would say General, but an admiral and the Coast Guard. And if there's anything that stood out, or that you want to talk about before we jump to that part of your career.
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 21:25
So I had a chance to decide whether I wanted to stay in the law or go back to operations, which is what I was doing in Los Angeles, Long Beach, I was doing a fellowship at Harvard Kennedy School, which was a blast. And I said, You know, I really kind of want to go back to operations operational command. At that point, I had been away for a number of years, my detail or as we call them, the Human Resources person who was assigning these said, year, you need to go as a deputy somewhere, because you've been away from this for a while. But we can find a place for you if that's what you want to do. Or, you know, if you're interested in being a bass commander that just does, you know, more like logistics and support, we could probably work that out as well. And I said, I'm not really a bass person. At that point I just wasn't interested in I like the operational stuff. So I said, I'm happy to be a deputy. And then I got a call in in March, which is kind of early for, you know, the fellowship went basically through June if I wanted to stay there. So I got a call in March, and the detailer said, pualani, go to Alaska, we think you'd be a good fit, the commander there is being relieved for cause because it's a toxic climate. And I thought that's interesting. So I would be going to a place that I've never been, it seemed really exotic. And I would be going to a command where people would be welcoming me. I thought, what a good, what a good idea. So I went there. And it I packed up everything in April, I left the school early and reported in. And it was a incredible experience, that having command, being able to do all kinds of things, watching people grow and do what they wanted sort of empowering people to do things we had our chief. So that's what we call them. And those are he sevens, eights nines. So we call it the Chiefs mess. We had chiefs who said, you know, we don't get to do a lot here, we're not given a lot of responsibility. And we'd like responsibilities. So I asked them if they were interested in in figuring out how to consolidate our command, which, at the time we had parts of our command, we're in different parts of the city of Alaska, in Juneau, Alaska. And they said, Yeah, we'll take that on. And not only did they take it on, they basically did everything. So they negotiated, how we're gonna move our leases, and all of that. And they did all this social cultural stuff that needed to be done to bring everybody together because of course, that's always a problem when you're moving people and changing their their lives. So that was just a great experience for me to saying, Go for it. And then they did much better than I ever would have anticipated. So that was really cool. We also had a cruise ship from the 1950s that had sunk right in Juneau harbor. It had been there for years, but it was starting to Leach oil from from years and years ago. So there were more and more oil slicks, this black, this disgusting, heavy crude that was getting on the shore. And so there was a thought like, well, if we upset this ship, it could cause a huge oil spill. But if we don't do anything, it's going to start it's really going to be pouring out at some point because the rivets on the joints were just rotting. So we decided to ask the national pollution fund center to open up the fund the Oil Pollution fund and we would do a response. We considered it a response because we said it was an immediate threat to the environment. And we basically once again, I use what I learned in in Los Angeles, Long Beach I called stakeholders together. We had town hall meetings. And we met at the Mendenhall Glacier Park Service auditorium. And we had our folk basically show, you know how this would be done. We had little stations set up and in terms of what was what was going to take place and what the risks were and all that and people came and asked questions, and we got a lot of buy in from the community, which made it very special. So we were able to do it, we did something extremely novel because we hired this salvage company, global diving and salvage and they are very clever. They do a lot of work worldwide, but they came up and they this, this is a very deep vessel, and the water is cold. So moving oil and cold water is very challenging. So they came out with this whole system, which now they use in other places, but they came up with a system where they would basically keep the water and move it through like a like a washing machine. Basically, they were moving hot water into the tanks and continually washing them and pulling the water up. And of course, they were using divers who had to come up periodically pretty frequently because of the depth. So it was quite a it was an exciting, exciting evolution. But it was also good to you know, clean up. It's good to clean up the harbor. So that was a really fun part of being stationed there. And I had a woman department had who I particularly I really thought she was amazing. She was our prevention department head, which is the one who does the shipboard inspections. And of course, Alaska has a lot of inspections because the cruise ship industry, so she was phenomenal. And I remember she was thinking about leaving the service she had she had two kids, one was born right before she got there. And she thought and her husband was an engineer, but he wasn't working while they were there. He was taking care of the kids at home. And I really wanted her to stay in the service. And she as it turned out, she did stay in the service. And she just left command in Japan activities Far East, which does a lot of our shipping obviously before it comes here since she was a great commanding officer. So it was really wonderful to see someone that he thought a lot about, you know, kind of grow and come into their own. And she's a phenomenal leader. So I had a great experience at Alaska as well.
Yeah, it sounds like you got to do so much cool stuff while you were in oil you're still in. So I'm sure there's stuff going on. But it's just it's so cool to hear all these stories. So when you found out you were being How does it work? Do you get considered to be an admiral? And you know about it? Or does like an announcement come out? Like how does that work?
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 27:36
Oh, so this is interesting. You're considered year after year. So you're eligible to maybe I don't know how many years of service 2425 years for me, it was probably 2425. Some people, it's earlier, it just depends how long you've served as a captain. And each year, you're considered. And you're only called if you're selected. Because it's only you know, a handful of people in the Coast Guard, not a lot of people. So basically you see the list come out each summer, and you're not on it. And that's that's fine. And actually I was thinking at the point when I did was selected. I was thinking that summer I was looking for other jobs, because I thought I'm not going to get selected. I'm 28 years and at that point. So I was looking for interesting work. And what did what was sort of surprising to me was I had attended this joint women's leadership gels or jewels or something like that. I had attended to that in San Diego, maybe in the spring. And the Commandant of the Coast Guard spoke at the time that was Admiral zoom cough two I I just thought so much of him and his wife. Anyway, he spoke and he he said he understands that it's different for women in the service. And if, if any of you have some things you want to talk to me about, let me know I would love to hear from you. And I thought wow, kinda customers saying that I so high after the Congress, I emailed him and I said, I would like to tell you about some of the concerns that women have in the service. And he invited me to talk to him about that. And I was very frank about all kinds of things. And he accepted it. He listened intently, he acknowledged that these things existed, and he wanted to do something about it. It was really remarkable to feel so heard, I guess you would say, and so it's very funny. He called me later that summer. And he said, Melissa, I have some good news. I I would really like to talk to you more about these issues and concerns of women in service. And I said, Oh, okay, sorry, guys, but I want you to do it as an admiral though. That was how I was notified of my selection. So it was really it was sort of funny, but nice.
That's so cool. It's so cool to hear that someone leading the service cares about women and how their experience is different. And then when you emailed him it wasn't just something he said it was something that he liked together. action on and so what was your role when you became an admiral for you?
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 30:04
Oh, so this is really funny. People don't think about this when you become an admiral or general, you are, you know, a general list, I guess, in many ways, but you're just assigned at the will of the commandant in terms of how you're going to how they're going to figure out how to run the service. So much more complicated, obviously, in the Air Force than the Coast Guard. But I was sent to northcom Nora northcom in Colorado Springs, which is very funny to think that there are people out there, but we are out there because Homeland Defense and homeland security are kind of related. So I was sent out there as the deputy and j three operations. And at the time, I had just adopted this baby girl and my soon to be husband was like, Are you kidding me? You're gonna be traveling across the country and back and forth. But we did it. And that was my first my first tour was a joint command tour.
Wow. And that adds a whole nother dynamic being becoming a mom and like getting getting married and like starting your family, did that add a lot of stress and
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 31:17
It was crazy. And the only reason we could pull it off, I guess was you know, we had the financial ability, my husband's in medicine and it was okay to you know, buy all these plane tickets is a it's a ludicrous amount of money to maintain to household with childcare and all of these other things. And I was very thankful that Peterson Air Force Base had a really good childcare system there with lots of centers, and it was very inexpensive. Even at my paygrade it was like the least expensive you could imagine. So that and the proximity I lived on base daycare was right there. The command was right there. So my husband would fly out to Colorado Springs on some weekends, I would fly back with little Zoey on on weekends. Sometimes it was just it was crazy. Like traveling as you as you all know, traveling with a baby or toddlers like unbelievable with all the strollers of the diapers the formula. It was something but uh, you know, it goes by it all goes by very fast.
Yeah. And that's really cool. And now you're a rear admiral. So when did that all happen? And what are you doing now?
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 32:30
So I, I went from the job at northcom to becoming our head of congressional and government affairs and Public Affairs. So that was job at headquarters, which I really enjoyed. I, I love the whole idea of you know, how you how you work with others, and communicate your missions and what you're doing and, and get support. So I did that. And I was promoted a year ago to Rear Admiral upper half. And then I was assigned, I think July, so about a little over a year ago. And then I was assigned to be the Coast Guard t jag and Chief Counsel. And I started that in April. So that's been my dream, obviously, as a as a jag. So it's really been wonderful.
Yeah, it sounds really cool. And are you and your husband living in the same place together now?
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 33:20
We are now he actually just went on sabbatical. He's been we spent, I guess, four years, communicating. And now we're together and trying to get used to that. But actually, it's it's good timing, because our daughter is in and out of school with this COVID nightmare. So that's having him home has been really wonderful. And we also have a we have a live in nanny, thank goodness, because as of yesterday, they decided to quarantine her pod at school. So she's home. So having the nanny and her husband around is good.
Yeah. And the COVID has really made life difficult, and especially for parents who both work it makes it even they can't imagine. It's so difficult.
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 34:07
Yeah, it's it's crazy. I don't know how I don't know how people on a single income, you know, dealing with the school issues. It's just very challenging. It's horrible. Yeah, for sure.
So you talked a little bit about making changes for women. I didn't want to end without talking about like, have you been able to make any changes? Have there been any policies that you've been able to work on?
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 34:29
So one of the things that occurred to me was more cultural than policy driven. But I was on the Alumni Association Board for the Coast Guard Academy, maybe about 10 years ago, and one of the things we noticed was that women alumni did not seem as connected with the Academy. Even though at that point, we were already graduating a lot more women. And so I was talking to my my friends about that my classmates who I've really been friends with for life, and we just we realized it's not about the Alumni Association. It's about Women not feeling as connected to the organization, not feeling that they are destined to lead the organization. Just not thinking big, i guess i a lot of women, unfortunately, are unbelievably committed to doing their, their jobs, but they don't see themselves as leaders of the entire organization, they don't think big. While you might hear a man say, oh, it would be really thrilling to be whatever to be a general, you would never hear what was saying that and I'm not sure we know what that's about. But at any rate, that concerned me. And I thought, you know what, I bet we could, we could turn this tide around if we got women together. And not, you know, necessarily just setting up mentors and all of that, but just giving women an opportunity to meet other women who are really successful, that families, not families, you know, whatever, but had really done their dreams, they had lived their dreams and and did think big, didn't limit themselves. So So I started this thing with some other folks called the Women's Leadership Initiative. And we got a lot of backing from some incredible men, as well as women. And basically what we were doing, we were just bringing people together at events, we were bringing people in business, women in business, and I connected a lot with the women international shipping and trade association. And we would hold these events, and just really social much social some, usually we'd have some, we'd have a woman from industry leader, she would talk a little bit about, you know, how she kind of climbed up that ladder and the things that happened in her life. And they were personal talk. So it was very engaging. And then we'd have, you know, mixers after and these are really nice events, we, you know, really nice brunches, cocktail parties, whatever it was. So it was very social. And what do you know, women love to socialize. So pretty soon we were developing this, this network, and it was all based on women wanting to get to know other women and seeing like how people would follow different paths in the Coast Guard or beyond the Coast Guard or whatever in the government or not, but there are paths to success. And that you don't have to limit yourself, because you have a family or you know, whatever your situation is that you are valued, and you have a lot to bring to the table. So that grew and grew. It's there's chapter chapters all over the country. Now women are very connected. And there's a governance committee that is doing a few things. One is that same Commandant who I mentioned earlier, he he made the Women's Leadership Initiative, an affinity group, which is helps because that way, when we spend money on things, legitimate government business, and so we've been also I've noticed, and I'm not involved in the governance anymore, they've come up with recommendations on a lot of issues that have gone through. So most recently, we had a wait, they they suggested changing the weight program, because it disproportionately impacts women, they sent a letter to the commandant, basically, and said, hey, these are our concerns. This is what's been happening, these are the numbers. This is what you recommend you do. And we have a pilot program now that is doing just that. So it's it's really funny, I didn't, I didn't dream about I didn't really want to make this women's leadership thing about changing policies necessarily or or being I don't know, I really just wanted it to be a vehicle for women to achieve their own best power women. But as it turned out, they've been involved in a lot of a lot of issues. So it's, it's exciting to see. And the endowment is, I think it's approaching a million dollars now. And that's money that's spent on getting women to leadership opportunities and all kinds of wonderful things, mentoring connections, all of that. So it's, that's been really wonderful.
I think that reminds me of like the loneliness that you feel sometimes on the military side. And then when you leave you feel that same loneliness because you're not connected. And then when there's a place where women can gather together, oh, I'm not alone. I don't I'm not the only one who feels this way. And then that's what the podcast is like, whenever I get to talk to women, their stories resonate so much with my story, and it encourages me to keep pushing, because it's like, I'm not, I'm not crazy. There's other people who feel the way that I do. And so it's been really a cool way to build a community. And it's exciting to hear about, like what a community can do you think it's just women hanging out telling their military stories, but there's so much power in that. So that's really cool.
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 39:46
Well, it's really amazing what you're doing and I can imagine the transition must have been difficult. Just going from this full time. Go go go with everybody relying on you to now your family's relying on you. It's very different. I would think,
Yeah, it was a really hard transition out of the military. It was hard. But I'm grateful for it, because it's where it got me to where I am today. And I'm really excited about the work that I get to do. So I really love this interview. But I always like to end with one last question, which is, what advice would you give to young women considering joining the military?
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 40:22
Well, I think it's always neat to experience service and military service in whatever way you want to perform it. But it does change you. So you're not going to be the same person afterwards. And if you're doing it, because you want to get the GI Bill or any of that good for you. I think it's a wonderful way to pay for an education, but you won't be the same afterwards. And that's just the nature of the experience. So get ready for adventure, get ready for things that you did not anticipate happening and get ready to be to be somebody that you didn't know you had it in you. So I think that would be what I would say,
That's so true. Someone recently asked me and they were like, what would your life have been like if you didn't join the military? And I was like, I don't even know how to answer that question. Because it changed me so much. And I'm like, not the same person. And I can't imagine life without the military because it's not like it's this tiny thing. It was a huge impact on who I am and where I am today.
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 41:22
Yeah, that's interesting. It is kind of all consuming.
So thank you so much for being on the podcast. I really enjoyed hearing your story, and I'm excited to share it with everyone. So thank you.
Rear Admiral Melissa Bert 41:33
Thank you. It's great talking with you.
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