The Long Blue Line: Vivien Crea—aviator, leader and trailblazer for women in the military
This is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.
Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life, and the procedure, the process, is its own reward. – Pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart’s quote best describes the endeavors of a modest Coast Guard officer whose groundbreaking accomplishments have gone largely unnoticed by her service and her country. In 2006, the U.S. Senate confirmed Vivien S. Crea as the 25th vice commandant of the United States Coast Guard. With that, Vice Admiral Crea became the first woman to hold the second highest post in the service and the highest position achieved by a woman in the U.S. military. During her tenure as second-in-command, she would also serve as the Coast Guard’s Chief Operating Officer and Agency Acquisition Executive and, occasionally, as acting commandant.
Crea grew up in a military family and pursued education throughout her career. She was born in 1951 at Fort Belvoir, Virginia; spent her formative years in Germany and South Korea; and graduated from the American High School in Seoul in 1968. In 1972, she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from the University of Texas. During her career, she would also earn master’s degrees from Central Michigan University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a Sloan Fellow. Her educational background would serve her well as a leader, mentor and teacher to countless service members.
After graduating from college, Crea wished to pursue a career in environmental protection. She sought work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, but those agencies had to enforce a hiring freeze in 1972. She decided to pursue her environmental interest through the U.S. Coast Guard and was among the first women selected to attend the service’s Officer Candidate School in Yorktown, Virginia. In 1973, she received a commission in the Coast Guard Reserves, one of the first women to do so since World War II. That same year, the Naval Flight School in Pensacola, Florida, opened to women and, within two years, Crea found herself among the first women admitted to that school. At Pensacola, she earned her wings and, in April 1977, the service designated Crea a Coast Guard aviator, the second female to do so. A year later, the Coast Guard transitioned her from the Reserves to permanent active-duty officer status.
Lt. Crea began her aviation career in fixed-wing aircraft, flying four-engine C-130 “Hercules” turboprop transports. At Air Station Barber’s Point, Hawaii, she became the service’s first female aircraft commander and flew long-range C-130 patrols over the vast Pacific. She next served at Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where she became the first female mission commander and flew C-130 runs for the International Ice Patrol and Caribbean counter-drug deployments. She next transferred to Washington, D.C., to fly the commandant’s Gulfstream II jet, but she served there only briefly before receiving a non-aviation assignment at the White House. In 1987, then Cmdr. Crea transferred to Air Station Borinquen in Puerto Rico, where she became Coast Guard aviation’s first female operations officer and played a vital role in the air station’s exchange of H-130 air frames for HU-25 “Guardian” Falcon jets.
During the 1990s, Crea received higher leadership positions in aviation. In 1992, Crea became the first woman to command an air station when she took over Air Station Detroit. While there, she flew HH-65 Dolphin helicopters on Great Lakes missions. In 1996, then Capt. Crea received her second air station command at Air Station Clearwater, Florida, the service’s largest air station at that time. There, she oversaw nearly 600 personnel, 12 HH-60 helicopters and seven C-130s. In 2008, the service would recognize her as the “Ancient Albatross,” the longest-serving active-duty aviator. She is the first and only woman to receive that recognition.
Crea broke gender barriers not only for aviation, but also for the U.S. military. In 1984, then Lt. Cmdr. Crea became the first woman from any military agency to serve as the Presidential Military Aide. For three years in this position, she coordinated military support for President Ronald Reagan whenever he traveled; and carried the highly sensitive “nuclear football,” a briefcase carrying launch codes and communications gear to allow for remote nuclear strike capability. In 1994, Cmdr. Crea became the first female executive assistant to the commandant and, in 1998, then Capt. Crea served as the Coast Guard’s first female chief of the Office of Programs and Budget.
Crea was not only a tested pilot and capable officer, but also a gifted leader. In 2000, she was promoted to flag officer and became the first female admiral in the Coast Guard. In her initial flag assignment, Crea served as the Coast Guard’s first female Director of Information and Technology and Chief Information Officer. In 2002, Rear Adm. Crea became the first female district commander when she took charge of the First Coast Guard District in Boston. Her command oversaw Coast Guard operations in the Northeastern United States from the U.S.-Canada border to Northern New Jersey.
In 2004, Crea received a third star and assumed command of the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area. In this post, Vice Adm. Crea served as the operational commander for Coast Guard activities in an area spanning five Coast Guard districts, covering over 14 million square miles of the Eastern and Midwestern United States and extending into the Caribbean Sea and over to Europe and the Middle East. Her command oversaw 33,000 military personnel and civilian employees, and 30,000 Coast Guard Auxiliarists; and she served concurrently as commander of Coast Guard Defense Force East. Throughout her career, Crea realized that her trailblazing efforts came with “some pressure, because I don’t want to screw up for other women who come along.”
In early 2006, the service selected Vice Adm. Crea to fill the position of vice commandant of the Coast Guard. In that position, she would not only serve as second-in-command of the service, but as acting commandant whenever the commandant was sick, on leave or somehow indisposed. As vice commandant, she was keenly aware of the example she set. In an interview late in her career, she commented “I’m very, very aware of the extremely qualified women with tremendous potential right behind me.” In all of her leadership positions, Crea mentored those under her watch, especially women making their way in a male-dominated service.
Vice Commandant Vivien Crea overcame numerous obstacles to reach the highest level of any female in the U.S. military. When she reflected on breaking so many gender barriers, she stated, “It just means I’m getting old. I was one of the first women to be integrated into the Coast Guard . . . so I’m kind of leading edge in terms of seniority.” When Crea retired in August 2009, her service awards included the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit (four awards), Coast Guard Commendation Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal. At her change of watch ceremony, Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, commented “She made history that was very little noticed . . . she became the first female vice service chief in the history of the United States and in the entire world.”
During her career, Crea never asked for preferential treatment or special recognition. Like a true Coast Guardsman, all she wanted was a fair shake. Throughout, Crea earned the respect not only of women in the Coast Guard, but all service members who came to know her. She was a humble member of the long blue line who led the way for women in the Coast Guard and America’s armed services.