Alumna makes history
For Rear Adm. June Ryan, perseverance pays off
By Terri McCullough
Being promoted to the rank of rear admiral in the United States Coast Guard is a great achievement. Being only the third woman to serve as the military aide to a U.S. President (Bill Clinton), and now to Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, is making history.
June (McIntee) Ryan, '84, achieved both when earlier this year she completed the Coast Guard's frocking ceremony to become the first female in its 200-plus year history to rise through the ranks, going from seaman recruit to rear admiral.
When asked about what it was that gave her the push to keep going when challenges appeared, Ryan cited her husband, family and friends. But she also credits some of the small, yet significant, things that happened along the way.
Growing up in Bettendorf, Iowa, Ryan spent a lot of time with her family on the Mississippi River. Her father taught her how to sail, and she and her siblings spent their summer weekends on the water, often entering sailing races sponsored by their yacht club.
It was during high school that Ryan recalls first being intrigued with the Coast Guard. "I remember watching television, when a U.S. Coast Guard commercial came on," she said. "I was curious enough about it that I immediately went and looked it up in the encyclopedia."
Military life was not unfamiliar to her family. Ryan's father served in the Air Force, and her older brother attended the Air Force Academy.
In 1979, Ryan began her freshman year at Bowling Green State University after hearing about it from her brother.
"My brother attended Notre Dame and was at BGSU playing football," she recalled. "He came back and said that BGSU had a beautiful new sports complex with a state-of-the-art gym. That sports complex is what first drew me to BGSU."
While attending the University, Ryan joined the Army ROTC and learned of the Pershing Rifles, a rifle drill team. She quickly signed up.
"There were both military style competitions, which is marching in various formations, and free-style competitions, which is rifle spinning along with marching," Ryan explained. Both events required a lot of practice and strict discipline, since members were graded on their ability to keep their head and eyes looking forward while marching in formations or spinning their rifle. Ryan's team competed at regional and national competitions.
"I thought all Coast Guard officers aimed for the ultimate assignment - command of their own ship. What I didn't realize was not very many women aimed for command at sea in those days."While at BGSU, she also decided to follow through with the commercial she saw in high school, and joined the Coast Guard Reserves. "I knew the military was strict, and joining the Reserves allowed me to put my toe in the water to see if I liked it," Ryan said. "I was the fifth child of six, and my parents were very strict when we were growing up. I found, compared to them, the military was nothing!"
Following graduation from BGSU, Ryan applied and was accepted into the U.S. Coast Guard Officer Candidate School.
"When I first entered into the Coast Guard, there were not a lot of women," she said. "I grew up with brothers and around sports, so I didn't think much of it."
Four years after graduating from BGSU, Ryan was assigned to her first command, a ship home-ported in Portland, Maine. She was the lead story on local news stations and on the cover of the local newspaper. "My neighbors treated me like a celebrity and I was known as 'the woman captain of a ship,'" she recalled.
It was during this assignment when she first realized that what she was doing was novel to some people. "It wasn't novel to me, of course," Ryan explained. "I thought all Coast Guard officers aimed for the ultimate assignment - command of their own ship. What I didn't realize was not very many women aimed for command at sea in those days."
Ryan quickly found that being in the spotlight also had its downside. "Folks were watching what I did, both at work and off-duty," she said. "I certainly had the feeling that being an average performer or average citizen was not really an option. Everything I did was amplified."
She was fortunate to have a very supportive crew, including three other women, who wouldn't stand for any derogatory comments about their ship or their captain.
It was on that tour that Ryan learned the value of loyalty and teamwork. "I learned to get the job done, have fun, and temper any negative comments, particularly if those comments are consistent with the observations from others who strongly support you."
BGSU was not her only "commission" in Ohio. In the mid-1990s she was the commanding officer on the USCG cutter Neah Bay. "We were doing ice-breaking duty on Lake Erie, keeping the shipping lanes open for the shipping vessels," she said. "I have been the captain of two ships - this was my second ship."
While she was stationed there, Cleveland Magazine ranked her as one of the Top 10 Most Interesting People.
In 1996, Ryan was serving as military aide to President Clinton when he made his way through the country on his whistle-stop train tour as part of his re-election campaign. She was on the campaign train during its stop in Bowling Green.
"Knowing that I was a BGSU graduate," Ryan recalled, "President Clinton called me up to the back of the train to stand with him and introduced me to the crowd that gathered."
Ryan looks back on her college experience with fond memories. "BGSU was my first time with the Army ROTC," she said. "Being involved with that program gave me the discipline and foundation I needed to grow while at college, and throughout my military career. ROTC activities and exercise placed me in a wide variety of roles, both leading and following."
While at the University, Ryan also took a class in rappelling. "Rappelling provided many life-lessons," she said. "It teaches you to manage risk and accept the leadership and guidance of others. It teaches you to overcome the inherent fear as you lean over the edge for the first time, your mind telling you that you're going to splat on the ground. And it builds tremendous confidence when you feel the fear, and do it anyway, bounding down the wall and finishing with an elated 'Can I do that again?'"
Ryan said she will always remember her sophomore year resident adviser. At the end of the year, the R.A. hosted a small party where she gave out little awards. Ryan received the "Most Likely to Succeed" award.
"Being involved with that program gave me the discipline and foundation I needed to grow while at college, and throughout my military career.""I still have that little homemade paper certificate, and I think that award probably set me on the path of getting where I am today," Ryan said. She credits it for keeping her going when the going got tough. "I remember thinking, 'I can't quit,' when I looked at it," she said. "It really meant a lot to me. My R.A. would have a hoot if she knew I still had it."
Ryan is a role model to all, but especially young women. When asked what piece of advice that she would pass on to her 11-year-old daughter, she says, "To persevere."
"Don't quit," Ryan counsels. "I am a fan of the poem 'Don't Quit,' and I have drawn a lot of strength from that poem throughout my life. There is a line about how every cloud has a silver lining, and I think that is true.
"There will be plenty of people along the way who tell you you can't," she warned. "You have to persevere and keep going. It is wise to accept feedback, and it's OK to feel the fear, but just don't let either of those stop you from doing what you want to do."
Ryan is embarking on her 18th assignment and a new chapter in her career as an admiral. She likens it to rappelling off the wall in the gym at BGSU: there is some anxiety and that familiar feeling that she's going off a cliff as she embarks into new territory.
"I carry with me the lessons of ROTC rappelling to trust in the guidance of the experts around me," Ryan said. "I steady myself on the confidence given to me by my R.A. and my BGSU foundation. I am confident that my new adventure will end with that familiar feeling of elation and a confident 'Can I do that again' feeling."
Ryan offered two additional pieces of advice. "First," she said, "feel the fear and do it anyway." Her second, and most important, is from the closing line in the poem "Don't Quit":
"So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit, it's when things seem worse that you must not quit."