News Icon

News: Evolving Dreams: How the past inspires the future

Courtesy Story

Lt. Cmdr. Zeita Merchant sits on the edge of her desk thinking about all of the women who have given her guidance over the years Petty Officer 3rd Class Richard Brahm

Lt. Cmdr. Zeita Merchant, the executive officer of Marine Safety Unit Texas City, sits on the edge of her desk thinking about all of the women who have given her guidance over the years, March 6, 2013. Merchant is one of a handful of African-American females who hold a command cadre position in the U.S. Coast Guard. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Richard Brahm)

TEXAS CITY, Texas - If we look back through the lens of the present, we can see that small events in our history can alter the very course of the future. Many of those events come from amazing women such as Clara Barton, who founded the Red Cross in 1881, or Rosa Parks, who decided not to give up her seat on that historic bus ride in 1955. We can see that those individuals helped alter history and open doors for the generations to come.

Lt. Cmdr. Zeita Merchant is the executive officer of Marine Safety Unit Texas City, one of the few minority women in the Coast Guard to hold that title. Not only has she excelled in her Coast Guard career, but also her personal life. She currently holds two master's degrees and a doctorate and it’s thanks to the role models of her past that she has been able to recognize her options that have put her on a path to help set a positive example for women of the future.

Merchant’s life didn’t start out easy, she didn’t have a privileged upbringing; she was born in the crime-riddled, inner city of Chicago. Her family knew that wasn’t a good place for them and they received a much needed opportunity to depart when Merchant’s grandfather passed away, leaving his house in Mississippi to his son, Merchant’s father.

Growing up in Jackson, Miss., Merchant would hear her mother and father talk about the encumbrances that were piled on them by having to work on a plantation when they were growing up.

“My father and mother lived and worked on the plantation. At the time, education was a ‘bonus’ for African-Americans in rural Mississippi, because their primary duty was to work the field on the plantation,” Merchant said.

That didn’t stop Merchant’s mother from trying to better herself. The only chance she had to continue her education was when the weather would get so bad on the farm that they could no longer work. It took her an extra two years to finish her education, but she was eventually able to graduate from high school.

“My mother is the reason I’ve always been very adamant about education, about having opportunities and seizing them when they arise,” Merchant noted. “She was why I always took school very serious, because I saw all of the problems my parents had just getting a basic education.”

As a child growing up she always wanted to be a doctor and over the years people encouraged her toward that goal. After graduating high school, she attended Tougaloo College in Jackson. While she was working on her degree, an opportunity arose that she didn’t expect, leading her down a path less traveled.

“I was going to college and majoring in biology pre-med with aspirations to become a doctor and during my junior year a roommate joined the Coast Guard through [the Minority Officer Recruiting Effort],” Merchant said. “I saw her in her uniform and asked her what she was doing? I knew if she could do it, I could too.”

“It was almost like a blur, it was such a seamless process. One minute I was checking into [the Coast Guard] and the next thing I know I’m taking tests, I’m signing the papers and getting my physical. I often look at that time in my life like it was something that was meant to be.”

While Merchant was a junior officer stationed in New Orleans, she was able to meet a woman who helped transform both the Coast Guard’s and Merchant’s future.

“I had the privilege to meet Dr. Olivia Hooker and she was amazing,” Merchant exclaimed. “She grew up in Tulsa, Okla., during the Tulsa riots. She lived through those riots and started fighting for women’s rights, as well as for women to be a part of the military.”

Hooker tried to join the Navy twice and wasn’t accepted. She wrote to all of the services and the Coast Guard presented her with an opportunity to become part of the Coast Guard Women’s Reserves, known as the SPARS, during World War II.

“When I see what Dr. Hooker went through − all of the discrimination and the race riots; then she joined the Coast Guard and became a doctor − that truly inspires me and makes me realize that I am an example in this organization,” Merchant said.

“[Being in a command cadre position] is something that a lot of women haven’t had the opportunity to accomplish and I see this through the lens of being an African-American female,” Merchant stated.

Even though Merchant’s childhood aspirations of earning the title of doctor didn’t happen the way she had originally planned. Using the lessons of the past, she was able to walk a path less traveled and still follow her passion to become a doctor.

“For women today, I don’t want them to close their eyes or their minds to opportunities that may be out there that they don’t think they can achieve or they don’t fit into a fictitious box. Don’t be afraid to make those choices, the ones that get you out of your box. Don’t live your life for someone else. Work hard and find your passion.”


Connected Media
ImagesLt. Cmdr. Zeita...
Lt. Cmdr. Zeita Merchant, the executive officer of...


Web Views
111
Downloads
1

Podcast Hits
0



Public Domain Mark
This work, Evolving Dreams: How the past inspires the future, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.

Date Taken:03.06.2013

Date Posted:03.08.2013 17:02

Location:TEXAS CITY, TX, USGlobe

Hometown:CHICAGO, IL, US

Hometown:GALVESTON, TX, US

Hometown:HOUSTON, TX, US

Hometown:JACKSON, MS, US

Hometown:TEXAS CITY, TX, US

More Like This

  • As we celebrate Women's History Month, we reflect on the past generations that have served. One of those women, Dorothy Canty Forsberg, fondly referred to as "Dottie," celebrates her 91st birthday, March 15, and she recently recalled her experiences in uniform.
  • Mastorakos explained that the family readiness officer helped to support her during the difficult times. Mastorakos hopes to ‘pay it forward’ through her volunteer efforts and by making sure those who need help receive assistance.

“My favorite part of volunteering with the Marines is the feeling of paying it forward or everything coming full circle,” said Mastorakos. “We all need support at one time or another, and when I provide support to my fellow ‘Snake’ families; I do it with a grateful heart knowing that I have been supported in the past as well. I like that I can repay those who helped me by also helping where ever I can.”

She hopes to encourage other spouses to volunteer or help out in any way possible.
  • Apart, the two words ‘army’ and ‘family’ generate strikingly different images. One implies regimented discipline and order; the other brings to mind love and compassion. For U.S. Army soldiers and their loved ones, however, the two words can hardly be separated, as each impacts the other in ways unheard of in most other professions.

These Army families seem to thrive in the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade as the Pegasus brigade is represented by three of the five families who are finalists for the 2012 Fort Bragg Family of the Year.

The Trotter, Miller and Buckhalt Families were recognized by XVIII Airborne Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Daniel Allyn and his wife, Debbie, during the Fort Bragg Family of the Year award ceremony at Fort Bragg, Nov. 6.

“The nominations are a testament to how much the 82nd CAB families were invested during our most recent deployment. Deployments are the times when people can shine and they’re really needed,” said 82nd CAB Chaplain (Maj.) Stanton Trotter.

Stanton, his wife Lauri and their two daughters, Sierra, 8, and Hannah, 6, make up one of the 82nd CAB finalist families. Along with the husbands from the other two families, Stanton spent the better half of 2012 deployed to Afghanistan.

During his time overseas, Stanton, of La Palma, Calif., always found time to call home via Skype to talk with Lauri and the girls. He credits this commitment to allot time for each other to their family’s success.

“My hope is that others see that we focus on our family first,” Stanton said. “That is what charges the battery of our family.”

Though there were times when Sierra and Hannah missed their father, Lauri, of Woodbridge, Va., helped the girls to understand the family commitment. 

“I think the girls are learning that what we have in the military is a choice, and with that choice there are some sacrifices that come, but we as a family make that choice.” Lauri said. “When we can remember it really was our choice, it helps to get through some of those less pleasant times, the late hours, deployments and whatever else.” 

The Millers, with the 122nd Aviation Support Battalion, were also finalists for the family of the year. Chaplain (Capt.) Eric Miller and his wife Stephanie, of Allentown, Pa., have four children: Kathryn, 15, Julian, 13, Elizabeth, 10, and Abigail, 8. Miller is the chaplain for the 122nd ASB, and has been in the Army for two and a half years.

Although this is his first duty station since joining the Army, Miller and his wife are no strangers to military life.  Miller is a former Marine who served from 1992 to 1996. Serving in her own right, Stephanie has volunteered as a Family Readiness Group Advisor with the 122nd ASB for the past two years.

“Being relatively new to the Army, the Millers bring fresh energy to the 82nd CAB families,” Lauri said.

Eric and his wife consider themselves down-to-earth people with a normal family and life.  They were both very surprised and humbled when they received news they were nominated for the family of the year.

“We were shocked and consider it a huge honor.  We are ‘Team Miller’ and we just want to help where we can,” said Stephanie. “I believe every family is the family of the year.  If you have to walk in the shoes of a military Soldier, spouse or child, you understand how much sacrifice there is.  Parents have to work hard to keep the family together and on track, and kids have to endure the loss of their parent for long periods of time.  I believe military families are a special type of family and they all deserve to be recognized.”

As an Army Chaplain, Eric can share his understanding of family with many Soldiers.

“The key is to have a solid base at home that will help keep things going even when you can’t be there,” Eric said.  “I am blessed to have Stephanie.  She is a strong woman.  She has kept things together and running as normal as possible even when I can’t be here.  My children are strong and understand what it takes for me to do my job.  I could not do what I do without their support and understanding.”

With their years of military service on both sides of the table, the Buckhalts both know what it is like to support and understand a military spouse.

Capt. Allen Buckhalt is a UH-60 Blackhawk pilot who serves as the commander for Company B, 2nd Aviation Assault Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade. His wife, Maj. (Ret.) Bonnie Buckhalt, leads the company Family Readiness Group. The Buckhalt’s son, Joel, 18, is a member of the National Honor Society and the Varsity Soccer Team at Jack Britton High School. Their daughter, Ava, 4, played a big role helping Bonnie as she packed treats and care packages to send 82nd CAB Troopers during their deployment.

Allen, originally from Miami, believes the values that have strengthened his family have helped him in his role as a commander.

“What I’ve learned from my family I’ve applied to my military family,” Allen said. “Respect, love and taking care of one another are principles that are important to any successful family and team.”
Bonnie, a retired officer who grew up in a military family in Killeen, Texas, has experienced all sides of Army life.

“I have never had a phase of my life where the military hasn’t been a part of it. This whole process has made me reflect on my experience in the military and as a family member. During this time where the Army has deployed pretty often, I have been able to see how the family members must remain close to one another and support other families in the unit.”

As the Family Readiness Group leader for her husband’s company, Bonnie gets to know many of her unit’s family members first hand. This involvement guides Bonnie to understand her own family’s nomination as a depiction of her greater community. 

“It was humbling to be a finalist for the Fort Bragg Family of the Year,” Bonnie said. “We know so many tremendous families and we are honored to represent them.” 

Perhaps it is this pervasive modesty, expressed by the Trotters, Millers and Buckhalts, that makes the Army Family an icon so universally understood – a model with which soldiers and their loved ones so easily identify themselves on a daily basis.

This family identity will serve the 82nd CAB well as the brigade transforms to support the U.S. global response force, reshaping a conventional unit to a rapidly-deployable aviation asset, capable of responding to a wide variety of humanitarian and combat missions around the world with little notice.
  • One year ago, President Barrack Obama stated in a proclamation for Women’s History Month, “While we have made great strides toward equality, we cannot rest until our mothers, sisters and daughters assume their rightful place as full participants in a secure, prosperous and just society.” 

Securing her place in the U.S. Army is Sgt. Cassandra Bustillo, a motor transport operator with the 541st Transportation Company, who says she is determined to prove herself capable of doing anything she sets her mind to.

Options

  • Army
  • Marines
  • Navy
  • Air Force
  • Coast Guard
  • National Guard

HOLIDAY GREETINGS

SELECT A HOLIDAY:

VIDEO ON DEMAND

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Youtube
  • Flickr