Biden’s Coast Guard pick becomes first woman to lead a military branch

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(WASHINGTON) — Adm. Linda Fagan became the first woman to lead a branch of the U.S. military when she was sworn in as commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard at a sunny ceremony in Washington on Wednesday.

President Joe Biden, who nominated Fagan to the post in April, spoke at the change of command event at U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, calling it “a new milestone in our history” and “a big deal.”

“There’s no one more qualified to lead the proud men and women of the Coast Guard, and she will also be the first woman to serve as Commandant of the Coast Guard, the first woman to lead any branch of the United States Armed Forces — and it’s about time,” Biden said at the ceremony, where Fagan relieved Adm. Karl Schultz, who is retiring.

Biden added, “Secretary of Defense, when he sent me the name, I said, ‘What in the hell took you so long?'”

Fagan is coming off serving as the Coast Guard’s vice commandant — the first female four-star admiral to serve as a branch’s second-in-command — and previously served as the commander of the Coast Guard Pacific Area from June 2018 to June 2021.

Now, Fagan will soon be the first woman to take a seat at the table of the U.S. Joint Chiefs — representing all branches of the military — and she comes equipped with nearly 40 years in the service, on par with the officers she will be joining.

“I’m immensely grateful to the many players that paved the way,” Fagan said following Biden. “Pioneers like Admiral Siler, Dorothy Stratten, Ida Lewis, Dorothy McShane, Elizabeth Friedman. I’m proud to be a part of this long history of service, dedication, and groundbreaking, and I’m committed to carrying these principles forward.”

Biden noted that Fagan had been a pioneer earlier in her career, too, serving as one of few women — or the only woman — in various stations throughout her time in the service, and calling Wednesday’s ceremony “a historic first, in that effort.”

“I want to thank you Admiral Fagan for taking the helm during this critical moment,” he added. “And for all that you’ve done throughout your career, it opened the doors of opportunities just a little bit wider to allowing those following behind you, a way through.”

Biden also emphasized that the U.S. needs to ensure that more women are in leadership positions at Fagan’s level.

“We need to ensure women have an opportunity to succeed and thrive throughout their professional careers and that means providing support and resources so women can compete fairly and fully for promotions and make sure women are not penalized in their career for having children,” Biden added. “It also means creating an environment where every member of the Armed Forces feels safe in the ranks, including from sexual assault and harassment, and where their contributions are respected.”

In 1985, Fagan was in just the sixth graduating class from the Coast Guard Academy that included women. She has since risen the ranks to serve on all seven continents — “from the snows of Ross Island, Antarctica to the heart of Africa, from Tokyo to Geneva,” according to the Coast Guard — and aboard the USCGC POLAR STAR, a 399ft heavy polar icebreaker. She is also the longest service in the marine safety field, which earned her the Coast Guard’s first-ever Gold Ancient Trident distinction.

During Fagan’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, which has oversight of the Coast Guard, lawmakers on the panel including Chair Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., praised her qualifications and place as a trailblazer.

“We’re sending a strong message to women cadets and to people training at Cape May. And we are sending a strong message to young girls who dream of someday serving in the Coast Guard,” she said. “We are saying now that the leader of this organization that your service matters, your contribution to the Coast Guard and to the country matters. And yes, you too can be commandant someday.”

Notably, Fagan’s daughter, Aileen, is also a Coast Guard lieutenant and was present at Wednesday’s ceremony.

“Thank you, Mr. President, for calling her out,” Fagan said in her remarks, after Biden had thanked her family for being there. “She’s my personal aide. I lean on her pretty heavily.”

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Fagan also earned degrees from the University of Washington and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.

Other prior assignments include Deputy Commandant for Operations, Policy, and Capability, Commander of the First Coast Guard District, and a joint assignment as Deputy Director of Operations for Headquarters and United States Northern Command.

The Senate approved Fagan’s nomination, along with five other senior Coast Guard officers, by unanimous consent last month.

ABC News’ Luis Martinez contributed to this report.

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