Chasing ice with the U.S. Coast Guard

Chasing ice with the U.S. Coast Guard

Sophomore Shannon Eubanks came to University of Portland after completing a tour of duty with the United States Coast Guard. Photo courtesy of NyxoLono Cangemi.

The first week of a new semester welcomes a new season, new classmates, and new rounds of icebreakers. A class of environmental studies students took their seats this spring hoping to see friendly faces, as the dreaded getting-to-know-you games began. 

“Why did you become an environmental science major?” the professor posed to the class.

There were the usual answers like “I took a class that I found inspirational,” or “I care about climate change.” But then a girl with blonde hair and a gentle face, sitting in the second row, raised her hand. 

“I’m here because I spent three years in the Arctic Circle. I watched the ice melt and the animals suffer,” she said. 

When she spoke, the room went silent as she told a story about four years spent in the Coast Guard aboard an icebreaker ship. Year after year, she watched the wildlife become emaciated and the frown lines on the faces of the scientists on board deepen, as she had to venture further and further north to reach the ice. After witnessing all of this, she has now found herself a student at the University of Portland. 

Eubanks was onboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healy (WAGB-20), which is homeported in Seattle. The Healy is one of two ice breakers in U.S. service and is the only military ship dedicated to conducting research in the Arctic. Photo courtesy of Shannon Eubanks.

Shannon Eubanks is a sophomore transfer student from a small town in Vermont, some 3,000 miles from the University of Portland. Unlike most students in their first year at the university, who arrive at their dorms after wrapping up high school and leaving home for the first time, Eubanks is 24 and officially finished her tour of duty in the United States Coast Guard in August, just weeks before her first day of classes on campus. While she is a rather non-traditional student, you would never guess it by looking at her. It’s only when she tells her story that you know that her journey has been different. 

“I have a hard time connecting at a certain level to civilians,” Eubanks said. “Especially people in the age range of college students, even though they're not much younger than me.” 

While there is a military presence on campus, she recognizes that every service member’s experience is different, and having already finished her service, that community isn’t hers anymore. 

She added, “I don't really fit in with the military world anymore. And so it's kind of like this weird in between zone of not really having a place in society.” 

Having enlisted when she was just 19, Eubanks didn’t quite know what she was getting herself into. After a freshman year at Eckerd College in Florida, she knew school wasn’t the right fit. She was searching for both an education and a higher purpose; in a greater sense, she wanted to save lives. Both of her parents had served in the Coast Guard, so that seemed like a logical next step, but when she shared with them her intent to enlist, both quickly frowned upon the idea. 

“They didn’t want me to join at all,” Eubanks recalled with a laugh. “They just remembered all the bad parts and didn’t want that for me.”

Eubanks is both a rule-follower that respects the conformity and traditions of the military, and a rebel who has an innate confidence and decisiveness. She saw her parents’ reservations as more of a light suggestion, so with a healthy dose of bravery and a bit of an iron will, she enlisted; two months later she found herself in basic training in Cape May, New Jersey. 

Eubanks joined the Coast Guard after feeling unsatisfied by a traditional college path. Photo courtesy of Shannon Eubanks.

After graduating basic, she enrolled in training for an enlisted command position, called Boatswain’s Mate. With this qualification, she would be one of the most versatile members on board her future ship. During her time at this school, she was only one of four women in a class of 40. 

When it came time for her class to choose their assignments, there were fights over coveted stations like Hawaii or Florida. Eubanks saw the chance to do something different and more challenging. The Arctic Circle seemed like a good fit. 

For the next three years, she would spend five or six months at a time on the only northern-bound icebreaker ship in the U.S. military, the USCG Cutter Healy. Stationed in Seattle, the Healy is the United States' largest and most technologically advanced icebreaker, as well as the Coast Guard’s largest vessel. There were about 100 people on board, 20 of whom were scientists studying ice flows and mapping the ocean floor. They would often be the only ship for hundreds of miles around, for months at a time. 

Eubanks said that the other-worldly beauty of the landscape of the Arctic helped make up for the isolation. Thanks to Earth’s tilted axis, the beginning of their patrols in the spring would be drenched in daylight, but by the time they were to head back to port in the fall, their days were swallowed by darkness. 

“It looks like a different world, especially at night,” Eubanks said. 

Photo courtesy of NyxoLono Cangemi.

Having virtually zero light pollution, the Arctic circle is the best place for viewing the stars overhead. 

“You have the northern lights going on and then it's like you're in a different landscape because the ice looks like land as weird as that sounds," Eubanks said. "There'd be hilly regions of snow. It's very quiet and it's super eerie.” 

Along with the view, Eubanks also noted the wildlife. She said at first she got excited when she would spot a whale alongside the ship, but a year — or two — and hundreds of whales later, the novelty began to wear off. 

Additionally, polar bears were one of the ship’s biggest concerns. Eubanks was assigned something called “polar bear duty.” This meant that whenever a group wanted to step off of the ship onto the ice, she had to be the first off of the ship and the last to get back on. She carried the shotgun and was prepared to defend her unit if needed. 

“Polar bears are vicious and you would never want to get into a one on one stance with them,” Eubanks cautioned. 

After four years of ice and polar bears, Eubanks decided to pursue her education at the University of Portland. Her boyfriend lives in Portland and it seemed like a good place to settle. 

Her choice in major was heavily influenced by her time on the Healy. Beyond watching the data show the ice melting, she noted the deterioration of the animals over the years made a big impact on her perspective on climate change. 

There was a year that the ship headed north and while they were 400 miles from the nearest land or ice mass, they spotted a polar bear and her cubs swimming alongside the ship. Eubanks said she believes they smelled the food on board and followed the ship for miles. Eventually, they faded into the distance as they couldn’t keep up with the Healy in open water. There was nothing anyone could do to help. 

“It was very sad to see because we knew they wouldn't make it before they got to another land mass they would drown,” Eubanks said.

Eubanks was often assigned to "polar bear duty," using a shotgun to stand watch while her group was on the ice. Photo courtesy of NyxoLono Cangemi.

While studying a subject she enjoys is a highlight of rejoining civilian life, not every part of her transition has been easy. Along with struggling to find her place as a veteran on campus, Eubanks noted the difficulty of adjusting to silence that comes with being off an icebreaker ship and back on land. 

When her unit was up north, parts of the ship were always turned on, including a particular type of cacophony that came with the ice breaking alongside the ship. 

“Adjusting when you get back in port is super difficult because everything's too quiet and I actually have a really hard time sleeping now because I'm used to all of that noise,” Eubanks said.

While the adjustment back to civilian life may present certain challenges, Eubanks has proven that she can overcome them. When asked why she didn’t sign on for another tour, she openly spoke of the apparent sexism that she experienced during her time on the ship. As just one of about 15 women on board the USCG Healy, she was the only woman in a command position in her department, though there were other women in engineering and female officers. Other women on board held support positions, or traditionally female roles such as in healthcare or secretarial work. 

“As much as I loved challenging that dynamic, I did have to do twice as much work as my male counterparts to get the same recognition,” Eubanks said. 

Women make up about 20% of the United States military, but in the Coast Guard, that number drops to only 12%. 

Eubanks’ strong personality meant she was willing to challenge orders she found to be misogynistic and speak up when she felt the language being used was inappropriate. She was often accused of inappropriate relationships with her male peers, while the truth was that she was trying to form friendships, as strong relationships with your shipmates is important to the health and safety of all crew members. 

“If I started hanging out with somebody too much they would call us in to question what that relationship was and I'm like, you don't call out anyone else hanging out with everybody,” Eubanks said. “I was like, ‘Do you want me to hang out in my room by myself?’ All my counterparts are male, and I can't help that.” 

She advises that any woman wanting to join the military, particularly the Coast Guard, “take it on cautiously and question everything.” She added that it’s not the military as a whole that is sexist, as she had many men stand up for her and agree that she was being treated unfairly, but that it only takes one bad supervisor to poison the command chain. 

Due to this mistreatment and a variety of other factors, such as wanting to go back to school, Eubanks was ready to leave the military when her four years were up. Now, she looks ahead to a civilian future, which still seems a bit uncertain. While she may be 24, she struggles like most college students with choosing a career path. 

“I'm actually having a lot of turmoil with (choosing a career) right now because I'm in a place where I still don't know what I want to do and I miss the high paced action of my military job.” 

What she does know is that she doesn’t want to stop making a difference. Being a part of the University of Portland community is a newfound purpose, a new place to call home.