"Our class was the guinea pig," said Joanne McCaffrey of Wheaton, one of the first women to graduate from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
"I think if I had it to do over again," she added, "I would have preferred to have been perhaps in the second group" of women to graduate from the academy in New London, Conn.
Despite her reservations, the 22-year-old McCaffrey believes, "I was lucky that it was my year that Congress passed the law" which permitted women to attend the service academies.
McCaffrey, one of 38 women who entered the academy in 1976, was one of only 13 who survived the academic and physical rigors of four years in the academy, graduating in May. At the end of this month, she will begin a five-year tour with the Coast Guard, reporting for duty aboard the cutter Gallatin.
With a crew of 175, the Gallatin will sail from New York in mid-August on law enforecment patrol in the Carribean. Among the crew will be 12 women, two of whom are officers. McCaffrey, one of the lowest ranking officers on the ship, will spend much of her time learning her new duties.
While Ensign McCaffrey says that her experiences at the academy were "very rewarding," she adds that there were some practical inconveniences during the first year, including a lack of sufficient bathrooms, locker rooms and uniforms as well as the problems of being accepting by male classmates.
The hardest test came during their first 10-week cruise to Europe in the summer of 1977, when they were the first Coast Guard women to sail on a lengthy voyage.McCaffrey, who had a tendency to seasickness during the first few days out, recalled the atmosphere of the voyage.
"We were really under a lot of pressure to do well. It was not whether Joanne McCaffrey did well, but whether I as a woman did well," she said.
Many of the officers on board, she felt, "didn't feel we should be there. Sometimes on watch they'd say, 'Well why are you here?' They couldn't understand that I was on (the ship) for the same reason they were on it."
The chance to sail on long cruises and to receive identical training to that of male cadets were among the factors affecting her decision to join the Coast Guard Academy. McCaffrey, who was also accepted at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, said she liked the idea that the Coast-Guard-academy was a smaller school.
McCaffrey said that her academy experience was both physically and mentally demanding.
"I found myself being able to climb ropes and do more push-ups that I ever thought I could," she said. "I didn't think I was ever going to be able to understand physics, but I got through. Basically, you sink or you swim. After balking a bit, I rose to it."
Along the way, whe met classmate Frank Albero of Bowie, whom she married shortly before they graduated in May. At the end of the month, Alberto will report to the cutter Tamaroa in New York. When his ship sails in mid-August, it will take up patrol duties in the fishing grounds off New England.
Since they cannot serve on the same ship, a policy McCaffrey endorsed, she admits that "We don't expect the first two years to be very easy."
After two years, McCaffrey believes they may have more flexibility in scheduling leave time together.
The Coast Guard seems to be in the McCaffrey family's blood. McCaffrey's sister, Mary Ellen, hopes to be in the group which starts the Coast Guard Academy in the spring. Their young brother James, who recently graduated from Wheaton High School, is scheduled enter the academy this summer. And their youngest brother, 14-year-old Robert, is already talking about going there, too, according to their mother, Constance.
Edwin McCaffrey, father of the clan of Coast Guard enthusiasts, is captain of the officers' corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Whether she will stay in the Coast Guard beyond the five-year tour is a question she has decided to put off. She said she may use some of her time in the service to further her engineering education.
"I have many questions in my mind about how compatible (a Coast Guard career) is with having a family," she said. McCaffrey says she and her husband are planning to have children.
Whether she stays in the service or leaves, she maintains the Coast Guard has added excitement to her life few others have had.
"I've been to Europe and back. I've flown a helicopter. I've done a lot of things I don't most-other 22-year-old women have done."