She's Got Grit: Sometimes They Aren't Ready For You

by Shannon Huffman Polson

When Jody (Vander Hyden) Carman swore into the Coast Guard in the mid-1980s, they turned her down for OCS because “they didn’t need any theater majors,” she laughs. She had tried unsuccessfully to make it into a couple of professional theater companies after graduating University of Wisconsin, and so she enlisted in the Coast Guard after moving to San Francisco to live with her sister for a while. “I met a couple of women who were in the Coast Guard and talked to their recruiter,” she says. 

Carman grew up in Wisconsin. Spending a lot of time with her father at his home on Lake Winnebago sailing, boating and swimming working as a lifeguard and swim instructor. She was naturally athletic and stood 5’11”, “all legs,” she says. “My father always suggested I’d like the Coast Guard,” she says, “but I loved theater most. I didn’t see myself there.”

Her first assignment was in San Diego where she did Search and Rescue and operational work, and trained as an emergency medical technician. 

“I always wanted to do medical work,” she says. “But the next training available wasn’t for four years.” The Coast Guard put her in for law enforcement training. Something hit a nerve.

“I’d signed up to save lives. I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of law enforcement,” she says. She turned down the training, angering her commander. He put her on cleaning detail.  

“Things changed because of luck,” she says. “The (air station) needed someone else to stand duty for the (H-65) helicopters, and because I was EMT trained, they sent me.”

Right away, she started flying as part of the aircrews doing Search and Rescue.

“I flew with H(H)65s, and Lyre Jet (HU 25) Medevacs,” she says. “I did these missions, and I wasn’t even trained.” She laughs. “Once they lowered me down on the hook and (the aircraft commander said through the helmet headset): ‘Don’t forget to ground the basket!” I had no idea you had to do that. I’d never been through training. I just learned on the job.”

Someone suggested Carman attend the Navy rescue swimmer school. Only a few years earlier, the Coast Guard had graduated its first woman from the school, Kelly Mogk (Larson).

“I didn’t even think about the fact that there weren’t any women there, that the swimmers were all guys,” she said. “I’d always been strong and I was bigger than a lot of the guys anyway.”

Still, Carman’s legginess didn’t help on the required pull-ups for entry. When she arrived, she was reverted a week for extra pull-up training. 

“The Navy guys worked with me. They were super respectful, really nice guys,” she says. “No ulterior motives. All good guys.”

Then she started the notoriously difficult training.

“Every morning I looked at myself I the mirror and said to myself ‘Always do your best. If you do your best and you fail there’s nothing more you can do. If you don’t do your best and you fail, you have to live with that for the rest of your life.”

She did her best. 

The last day of training brought the dreaded final multi-exam. 

“You sit in the locker room and wait,” she explains. “Then you hear this loud pounding on the door and you have to come out on the deck, climb the platform and jump. When you’re in the water there are three training casualties and you have to triage them.”

Carman was the first in her class to go through the exam. Then she was sent away, as students aren’t told if they pass the exam or the course until after all their fellow students have made it through.

Once her class had finished their exam, she was told she’d have to go again.

“I went back into that locker room and just sat there,” she remembers. “They made me wait. I listened to the droop-drip-drip of the shower. Then there was the pounding on the door. I ran out jumped off the platform. There were twenty five guys in the water! I didn’t know where to start, then saw the instructors laughing on the deck. It was all for fun.”

Carman graduated as honor graduate from a course only one woman before her had ever completed.

Training though, was just the beginning. Her first assignment took her to Hawaii.

“Having women in a unit was new then,” she says. “I was excited, ready to work. I’d just graduated as honor grad from the swimming school. I got up my first morning and walked down to the hangar.”

The guys were waiting for her. Twenty of them, lined up in a row.

“No one smiled. No one said hello. They just watched me walk in, looking me up and down, as though they were saying ‘who the hell do you think you are?” she says.

“I reported to the shop supervisor, and instead of assigning me to aircraft maintenance, which my position required, he put me on a computer typing in maintenance reports. The guys in the shop started getting upset, like I was getting over, and asked why I wasn’t doing the work that I was supposed to do. The made it really hard to get qualified. I’d come in as an honor grad, and now I wasn’t getting a chance to meet the basic requirements of my job.”

When  Carman and other female Coasties reported inappropriate behavior, nothing happened to the supervisor. “He stayed in his job. He actually got the chance to retire,” Carman says.

She talked to the one other woman working in the aircraft hangar, a female pilot.

“She told me ‘you just gotta put up with it or get out.’ I decided I’d get out. There was a big world out there with a lot of things to do.”

She pauses.

“I love the Coast Guard mission and I love the Coast Guard,” she says. “But I wasn’t going to put up with being treated that way.” 

Her voice trails off. “Sometimes I wonder if I gave up too soon. I wish I had waited for the (Corpsman) training I had really wanted to do.”

Carman left the Coast Guard, married another rescue swimmer, and had two children (she and her husband divorced after thirteen years. She later remarried.) Unable to get the Coast Guard out of her system, she went back to work as a civilian in support of the Coast Guard, where she still works today in Kodiak, Alaska, helping to manage programs that weren’t available when she wore the uniform. “I still miss wearing the uniform every day,” she says. Remembering her original desire to work in the medical field, she went back to earn her Masters in Public Health.

Almost thirty years of service have given her excellent perspective for new Coasties— or any young leaders— starting out. 

Remembering how she left her original interest in health to the detriment of her career satisfaction, she says: “If there’s something you want, wait it out.”

Though the rescue swimmer track took her away from her goals and turned out to be a disappointment, she looks back on the experience as some of her proudest moments. “I’m proud of being a pioneer for other women and setting the example— and men too,” she says.

About grit, she says: “Grit is not being soft. Being resilient. You suck it up. You might be a little rough. You do what it takes to get through.”

I ask her where she found her own grit. “I have a strong relationship with God,” she says. “There’s strength in that for me. And my dad always said you have to be able to land in a pile of shit and come out smelling like a rose. It’s a funny saying, but you have to make the best of whatever you’re given. And you have to make it happen. You can only depend on yourself.”

Her advice to young women just starting out is tactical and grounded by three decades of experience. “Keep boundaries with your co-workers,” she says. “Especially for women in mostly male organizations, have a strict policy not to date your co-workers or anyone associated with your organization,” she says. “It can prevent you from focusing on what you’re there for. Get involved in the community around you and make your social life there.

Remember that you represent the Coast Guard 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on and off duty.”

Carman has come full circle. Though she didn’t make the uniform a career, she found a way to stay with her beloved Coast Guard. She returned to the field of health with her MPH. She returned to community theater productions. She still swims “all the time,” she says.