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Breaking down the doors of tradition - JDF Coast Guard gets its first female commanding officer

Published:Sunday | April 20, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Commander Antonette Wemyss-Gorman, first female head of the Jamaica Coast Guard. - Photo by Gladstone Taylor/ Photographer
Commander Antonette Wemyss-Gorman, first female head of the Jamaica Coast Guard. - Photo by Gladstone Taylor/ Photographer
Commander Antonette Wemyss-Gorman, first female head of the Jamaica Coast Guard. - Photo by Gladstone Taylor/ Photographer
Commander Antonette Wemyss-Gorman, first female head of the Jamaica Coast Guard. - Photo by Gladstone Taylor/ Photographer
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It seemed a natural course for Commander Antonette Wemyss-Gorman that 22 years after joining the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) as a petite 19-year-old, she would now be the first female commanding officer of the Coast Guard.

It was almost inevitable for the natural-born leader, who took great passion in defying the norm and breaking down the doors of tradition to accomplish such a historic feat in the male-dominated institution.

Deeming herself "a little country girl from the middle of Jamaica", the only child for her mother revealed that growing up with her grandparents in Top Alston, Clarendon, she was always fascinated with water.

"I had a tank in my yard and I don't know how I didn't drown, because every day I wanted to jump into it to swim," stated the graduate of Knox Prep School and Knox College.

"I taught myself to swim and mastered it on my own, later swimming for my school's team. So, for me, a career with the Coast Guard was the only option that seemed natural. Despite others trying to discourage me and wanting to steer me towards the more traditional female roles, I was always taught that there was nothing I couldn't achieve so I stuck to my guns."

Always a high achiever and driven, she went through the required training, pursued the necessary professional development courses and moved up the ranks in the JDF. At no point did it cross the mind of the diminutive five-foot two-inch woman that anything was out of bounds. In her mind, the world was hers for the taking.

"My perception of the military was that it was a place that would allow me to do non-traditional stuff, so I was not about to follow the traditional path. When I joined the JDF, I did not for a second consider that there would be any barriers or limitations."

With an impressive résumé, among Wemyss-Gorman's many positions in the JDF over the years was being appointed commanding officer of the cutter Belmont Point in 2002, which made her the first female ship captain in the Caribbean.

She was later appointed second in command of the JDF Air Wing.

Formed in 1963 as the Jamaica Sea Squadron, later renamed the Jamaica Defence Force Coast Guard, it is the military unit responsible for safeguarding Jamaican waters and maintaining law and order in the island's maritime domain of approximately 90,000 square miles.

Wemyss-Gorman was named the eighth commanding officer of the Coast Guard this month to replace Commander David Chin-Fong. In the entire history of the JDF, there has never been a female commanding officer for any unit.

CHANGING THE CULTURE

"Prior to me becoming the first sea-going female in the history of the JDF in April 1994, women in the Coast Guard were only in support roles," she shared with The Sunday Gleaner from the Coast Guard headquarters in Port Royal.

"Traditionally, women, by choice, took on support roles, which meant they didn't qualify for a command job as their careers developed. I chose a path that would allow me to do command jobs just the same as the men."

Wemyss-Gorman added: "However, I don't believe that the JDF is a chauvinistic institution, as it may appear to be. The truth is, women have just not followed the path; I did. For instance, when I joined, female officers were not required to do promotional exams. When I took it, there was this big brouhaha that there was now a female in a combatant role taking the exams, which would now put me in a position to move up the ranks."

That bold step helped to change the culture of the military, forcing women to look beyond the traditional administrative and support roles, bolstered by encouragement from commanding officers.

She believes Rear Admiral Hardley Lewin, who was the commanding officer when she joined the Coast Guard, played an instrumental role in her development. She credits him with a lot of foresight and open-mindedness, as he took steps to get women more involved in commanding roles across the JDF.

"The notion that this rank was unachievable for a female was just that. Persons had just not done the right things before to get to that point. Both men and women all start out with the same basic training, but the trend was women always branched into the desk jobs, while the men took on the field work," noted the go-getter.

"The military is an excellent career choice for women, but I caution them to be clear, confident, and sure of what (they) want and go after it. A career in the military is no walk in the park and is definitely not for the average woman, you have to be a strong character to survive. And, like it or not, being female in such a male-dominated environment, you have to be twice as good."

Wemyss-Gorman added: "It is disheartening to see females with good promise fall behind in the military because they rely on their femininity to get them through. You won't get very far. Accompanying that will be the proportionate lack of respect. I'm not saying you need to lose your femininity, but you cannot rely on it and must insist that it is not a factor in how you are treated.

"The men in the JDF unconsciously treat women like women, but when it comes to the job, they expect you to behave equally like them, like just another officer. That's where you earn your respect.

"You have to demonstrate that you are willing to carry and pull your own weight. Even if you can't run three miles with a heavy gun, determine that you will do as much as you can until you drop."

This approach has been her recipe for the success and respect she has earned from her male counterparts.

FAMILY LIFE

Married to JDF Coast Guard reserve officer, Jonathan, for the past 16 years, with eight-year-old son, James, the female officer tries her best to balance family with career, acknowledging that being in service to one's country requires a lot of family sacrifice.

In charge of seven bases across the island, a personnel of 23 officers and just under 300 soldiers, four offshore patrol vessels, numerous smaller vessels, and sometimes facing dangerous, challenging situations in the line of duty, Wemyss-Gorman is acutely aware of the awesome responsibilities and challenges of the job, but is neither daunted nor overwhelmed by it.

She strongly believes in taking on every challenge and responsibility head-on.

"I would say I have one of the most challenging jobs as a commanding officer because of the responsibilities versus the (number) of personnel required to effectively carry out the job.

"I need at least double that (number) to effectively carry out the task, but I intend to continue moving the unit forward and handing it over in a better position to my successor."

anastasia.cunningham@gleanerjm.com