She's Got Grit: Leadership and Grit with Coast Guard CMDR (Ret) Alda Siebrands

A mutual friend introduces me to Alda Siebrands with a long email about her escapades, and I can’t wait to connect with her. She likes to travel and so I leave a voicemail, and a few weeks later we finally find each other by telephone. She's the kind of person considered superhuman by most mere mortals. 

Siebrands on a field exercise at her initial Army training, 1976.

Siebrands on a field exercise at her initial Army training, 1976.

Siebrands is famous— or infamous, her friend Hank laughs— in the Coast Guard and I want to hear all about it. 

Where does a woman like this come from?

“I grew up on a farm near George, Iowa,” she tells me. “It’s a tiny town in the north-west part of the state on a farm, typical for back then. Eighty acres, cows, hogs, chickens, grain.”

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Siebrands grew up working on that farm. After playing basketball in high school, she took her game to the University of Iowa. “It was one of the few states where there were sports programs for girls at the high school level,” she says. “Of course, it was a six-player team, half court, two dribbles. They thought it was too far to run between hoops.” In the late 1960s, most women went into nursing or teaching. Siebrands figured she’d make a bad nurse, so went on the teaching track, but after student teaching didn’t care much for that either. She’d seen the television ads for the Peace Corps, and signed up.

Two years in the jungles of Costa Rica taught Siebrands that she thrived on adventure. She couldn’t imagine going back to a regular teaching job, so she traveled for a year around Central and South America.

JOIN THE ARMY, SEE THE WORLD

“At the time, the Army had a campaign to “see the world,”” Siebrands says. The only way a woman could earn a commission in the Army then was OCS or a direct commission requiring an application with a college degree. Siebrands applied and was accepted into the Army. This was just the beginning of her adventures and far from her final port of call.

Siebrands at the controls of the TH-55 trainer at Ft. Rucker, 1978

Siebrands at the controls of the TH-55 trainer at Ft. Rucker, 1978

“I reported to Fort McClellan, Alabama where they trained the women officers,” she says. There were four platoons, about 200 women. I chose Signal Corps because it seemed like it had better opportunities for field time,” she says. Then she had a chance to go to jump school (Army Airborne School). She took it, and reported to her first duty station of Ft. Bragg with jump wings on her chest.

“I checked in to the 50th Signal Battalion in 1977, which was a great opportunity to keep jumping,” she says. “They produced their own jump masters too, and my boss asked me if I wanted to go. I said sure, though I didn’t think I’d make it through, and asked him if I washed out if I could have another chance. He said yes.”

Army Special Forces taught the Jumpmaster school then, and the attrition rate was 50%. Siebrands reported for training, and despite her concerns, graduated her first time through as a distinguished graduate, the first woman ever to graduate from the course.

“When you show you can do it, the gender differences just disappear most times,” she says.

Alda's Favorite Books

When I ask her to say more about that she says: “For me (gender issues) were never at the forefront. Every day you’d see something that was clearly gender based, but I never spent too much time thinking about it. I thought I’d just do my job, and most things would take care of themselves after that. I got along with folks well, both junior and senior to me.”

Jump school was only the beginning of Siebrands’ adventures, and when she heard about flight school, which had only recently opened to women, she started working on a way to go. After fifteen months at Ft. Bragg, she went to Fort Rucker to begin flight training, starting out in the TH-55 and then transitioning to the UH-1. She graduated in 1979.

“I requested Korea, because post-Vietnam stateside assignments didn’t have much flying,” she said. “When I was there I transitioned to the OH-58. My battalion commander thought the VIP unit in Yong San just outside of Seoul was the safest place for me, but we got to fly all over the country. There were a lot of single pilot opportunities and I had to get DMZ qualified.”

Siebrands was serving in Korea when Park was assassinated.

“We went on high alert,” she remembers. “Everyone thought North Korea would make a move.”

After service in Korea, Siebrands came back to the states as a lieutenant primed for a staff position.

“I didn’t want to do staff,” she says, “so I requested a position at Ft. Rucker as a flight instructor.”

While working at Ft. Rucker she decided she was a little more liberal leaning than the rest of the Army pilots she worked with. The U.S. went into Grenada and Nicaragua, and “it became clear that if you stuck around long enough in the Army you’d have to participate in a conflict you didn’t believe in,” she says. So she left for a civilian position flying to the oil rigs for PHI in Louisiana. It only took a year for her to feel like a bus driver, and Siebrands left for another year of travel around Asia.

Siebrands and her co-pilot in front of the HH-52

Siebrands and her co-pilot in front of the HH-52

Through happy circumstance on her return to the states, Siebrands ended up taking a position in what would be a career for her in the Coast Guard. She trained in Mobile, Alabama in the HH-52 and was sent to North Bend, Oregon.

GRIT: JUST ANOTHER FLIGHT

Siebrands was flying the HH-52 on “a nice day” off the coast of Oregon when she and another crew were assigned to a rescue. 

“There was a commercial fishing boat with three crewmen which had taken five passengers out to fish for tuna,” she recalls. “Fishing for tuna is further out, 45 to 60 miles. They began taking on water on the way out to fish, but kept going anyway. By the time they realized they were in trouble, their electrical system and engine had failed due to being submerged in the water." When the boat didn't return, the families called the Coast Guard, and the search began that night without results. 

The next morning the Coast Guard sent two helicopters (one flown by Siebrands) to look for the crew. 

“We flew two latitudinal lines a mile apart,” she remembers, “combing the ocean out to the 60 miles, then turned around and came back on the next latitude line down. On the way back we started seeing some orange floating in the water.

The crew had really poor emergency equipment, and the boat had sunk, but they’d tied everyone off to parts of it. Three of the people had already succumbed to exposure. They’d been in the water all night.”

At this point both Siebrands’ helicopter as well as the other helicopter were low on fuel. Siebrands and her copilot and crewmen picked up two of the survivors, and the other helicopter picked up three. They did not have fuel to make it back to the Coast Guard base. The nearest hospital was even closer, and they headed toward Lincoln City. 

“It happened that one of the doctors at the hospital there had a particular interest in hypothermia,” Siebrands remembers. “We were able to get them to the hospital— one of the survivors had body temperatures in the 80s by then— and all five of them survived.”

Just after this rescue Siebrands transitioned along with the rest of the Coast Guard pilots to the HH-65 Dauphin as the HH-52 was retired. Knowing it was time for a transfer of duty station, Siebrands looked for her next adventure. 

Coast Guard Icebreaker Polar Star makes its way south to Antarctica

Coast Guard Icebreaker Polar Star makes its way south to Antarctica

LEADING THE WAY: TO ANTARCTICA

“Not many people wanted polar duty,” she says of the Coast Guard’s assignment to Antarctica. “It required long deployments away, over four months of it shipboard, but I couldn’t wait.” She signed up and was trained for polar duty, and climbed aboard in Seattle for the long trip to Australia and McMurdo Station.

“It was the best thing I ever did,” she says, and I hear the smile in her voice. “The aviation detachment got off at McMurdo and flew missions for the National Science Foundation. Every day was different. We’d fly to the ice edge, and I’d have to hover while a crewmember jumped out to drill a hole and be sure the ice was at least a foot thick before I shut down. We’d sit and watch the whales come in and the penguins go by. Other times we flew geologists to pick up rock samples, flew with weather folks to retrieve balloons. The variety of missions and the amount of science happening there was amazing.”

Siebrands in Antarctica on the annual sea ice in front of Mt. Elbrus

Siebrands in Antarctica on the annual sea ice in front of Mt. Elbrus

Siebrands did two Antarctic tours before coming back to be stationed at Port Angeles, Washington.

It’s worth telling the next story from two perspectives. Before I make contact with Siebrands, our mutual acquaintance Hank Cramer, himself a retired Special Forces Colonel, sends me an email.

IT COULD ONLY BE ALDA

“One day in the mid-1990's, I was working as the State 911 Manager and had dropped into the Port Angeles/Clallam County 911 Center.  I asked the manager, Naomi Wu,  if anything interesting was going on, and she said "Yes!"  She explained that a call came in that a fishing boat had sunk in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, leaving an elderly man to swim for it.  The rescue helicopter was out of range, over on the coast near Forks.  BUT...there was a USCG helicopter in the air locally.  It had no rescue swimmer, it was an instructor pilot taking a rookie for a check-ride in the HH-65.  They found the old man and lowered the cable to him, but he was too hypothermic to be able to grab the cable and put on the harness. "So what happened?" I asked.  Naomi tells me, "The instructor pilot turned the controls over to the co-pilot, then SHE jumps out of the helicopter into the water to get the guy!"  I said, "Damn, that's got to be Alda Siebrands."  She asked "Who?"  So I explained that I only knew one female pilot in the USCG, and only one decisive and unconventional enough to dive into the ocean from the aircraft in which she was the command pilot.  I was right, it was Alda. “

Siebrands with her HH-65 in Port Angeles

Siebrands with her HH-65 in Port Angeles

When I talk to Siebrands, she doesn’t change much of Hank’s story.

“It was another nice day,” she said. “We were out for a routine flight in the San Juans with extra operations folks on board orienting them to the area. There was a fourteen-foot fishing boat off Pillar Point that had waited too long when the weather came in. Three men were on board, an older man and his son and another man in his forties. The boat flipped over in the breakers. The third man swam for shore, and though we never recommend leaving the boat, he ended up making it and crawled onto shore just as a couple was walking down to the beach. They called the Coast Guard and we were diverted.”

Siebrands and her co-pilot dropped off the operations folks in Victoria. 

“We didn’t have time to pick up a rescue swimmer,” she says. “We flew straight there.”

When they arrived, the flight mechanic in back lowered the basket. “One man was finally able to get in and we brought him into the cabin, but it was clear the other wouldn’t be able to get himself into the basket when we lowered it again,” she says. 

“@@Time was the driving factor.@@ These men had been in the water before we were called and were ready to fade away. 

I didn’t make the decision until I told the copilot he had the helicopter, and went to the back and saw the situation. Jumping into the water isn’t something I’d prefer to do, but @@I couldn’t ask anyone else to do it.@@”

She jumped.

“@@It wasn’t until I was in the water that I realized how difficult it was@@,” she says. “Rescue swimmers have masks and snorkels so that they can see and breathe. Being underneath a helicopter hovering over the water is pretty overwhelming.”

The flight mechanic on the helicopter remembers the rescue.

“I looked down at her in the water, and she was almost past the point of exhaustion.”

“The guy was too heavy to put in the basket,” Siebrands remembered. “He was totally unconscious. I got into the basket myself and pulled him on top of me, and my co-pilot hovered us over to a mudflat. Someone had called an ambulance from Forks, and so the crewman and I did CPR until the ambulance arrived.”

Hours later, the man died.

“@@Is there anything we could have done quicker, could have done better?@@” she asks in the Coast Guard Channel’s interview.

“@@We gave him everything we had@@, all the resources we had,” the flight mechanic reports. 

Despite potential threats of disciplinary action from the Coast Guard, Siebrands was awarded the United States Coast Guard medal for remarkable initiative, fortitude and daring in spite of imminent personal danger. 

“Later the Coast Guard put a policy in place that you couldn’t do what I did,” she says.

Siebrands on Destruction Island

Siebrands on Destruction Island

Siebrands is not naive to the challenges in the military, nor blind to the possibilities.

GRIT: EYES WIDE OPEN

“@@Go in with your eyes open@@,” she says. “Wait and see what the opportunities are and be ready for them. I never turned down any course that came available, and each of those opportunities will open up additional paths.”

Siebrands admits that the gender challenges of the military are real. 

“For women to have to always be on the defensive is a sad reality,” she says. “When women are working just as hard as guys to get the job done, and they have to have that issue as a secondary challenge,” she says, and trails off. “But it’s not because it’s the military. It happens in corporate and academic environments too.

A young Siebrands flying the UH-1 in Korea

A young Siebrands flying the UH-1 in Korea

I remember sitting with all the other instructors at Fort Rucker flying nights,” she says. “What is it about nights that brings out the worst in people? There were no minorities, and I was the only woman. And some of these guys were sitting there making comments about minorities, and I remember thinking the only reason they aren’t making comments about women is because I’m sitting here.”

What is she most proud of? “Well, having done my job well,” she says with the humility characterizing all great leaders.

“When you do your job well, you eliminate half of the discrimination right there.”

About grit, she suggests that there is a certain mental toughness a person determines in advance of a difficult situation. “@@You'll surprise yourself with how far you can take it when things get tough.@@ Military experiences require constant testing of yourself.”

Grit can be developed, she thinks. “Constantly surmounting challenges and testing yourself you gain the necessary confidence,” she says,

Siebrands went back to Antarctica for a third tour, and served at Brooklyn Air Station, Humboldt Bay Air Station, and two years at the US Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela before returning for her final duty station returning to Port Angeles, WA.

Surmounting challenges is something she knows a thing or two about.

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