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Article Published January 6, 2021

Capt. Eva Van Camp Takes on the Hardest Jobs as Coast Guard Leader, Trailblazer

By Jesse Williams/Zip06.com

Strength and service.

That’s what U.S. Coast Guard Captain Eva Van Camp, who oversees hundreds of miles of dangerous waters along the Connecticut and Long Island shoreline, spoke of from her New Haven office along the harbor.

The service was explicit: Raised by civic-minded and selfless parents, she talked about how their examples helped make her the kind of person who wants to stand on the front lines and give back to her community. Service was also what kept her going during the darker, more personally challenging periods of a 20-year military career, she said, as she continued to put country and community over self.

But strength was implicit in everything else she spoke about: commanding and looking out for the hundreds of men and women who answer to her, leading dangerous search and rescue operations (including the key Coast Guard role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster back in 2010), and shattering glass ceilings to become the first female commander of her sector.

“Just who I am and working hard and being true to my people, taking care of my people, I think has been the most important part, and the rest falls into place,” Eva says. “My number-one priority is to take care of my people.”

Though she was speaking in reference to the approximately 700 Coast Guard personnel under her command, Eva’s people also includes everyone in need of help, assurance, and security in her sector, an area that extends from Port Chester, New York to the west as far as Rhode Island, extending 200 miles south of Long Island.

This level of authority and responsibility, which involves life-or-death decision-making alongside an ability to build trust and effective communication with a huge number of people and organizations takes a steady hand.

Growing up in a small town in Maine, Eva says she had no interest initially in military service, but was encouraged by her father, a Navy veteran, to try the Coast Guard academy, which she did, almost reluctantly. An organized and logical person from her early years, Eva says she eventually adjusted to military life, and reveled in the opportunity to see new places early in her career.

“I’ve had numerous jobs where I’ve traveled around the world,” Eva says. “I was able to travel almost all over Asia. It was awesome...I know a lot of people don’t think the Coast Guard is out overseas, but we are.”

That included a trip to Korea, where she and her siblings were born. Adopted by an American family as a baby, Eva describes that visit as incredibly fulfilling both personally and professionally, as she provided community service to people there.

“It was fun to be able to see where I came from, and give back a little bit to where I came from,” she says.

After being named sector commander this past summer, Eva moved to Madison with her two children and husband. She says that with a job she loves and is well fitted to and a family to raise, she’s maybe past her days of sailing the seven seas for adventure.

But that doesn’t mean she isn’t called on for her strength and service every day, she said. Whether it’s meeting with harbormasters and members of the public to promote safe boating practices, working with women leadership conferences and affinity organizations, or helping set and achieve goals as far protecting the environment, Eva says she continues to find herself in the right place to do the kind of work she wants.

The Long Island Sound and the south shore historically have high levels of both search and rescue needs as well as numerous fisheries and harbors that require Coast Guard oversight or protection, according to Eva, and those demands line up perfectly with both her professional resume as well as her personality.

“I feel like I have, I wouldn’t say a gift, but kind of like a gift where I can interact and work with people very easily,” she said. “I enjoy just being out there with the public and so I think that helps me be where I am right now.”

That striving for community doesn’t end in her professional life, she says. Building a community for herself and family is certainly more difficult as a military member, but she says Madison has already offered her that chance.

A handful of people in her neighborhood have banded together for regular outdoor “happy hours” in their driveways, she said, and that kind of connection to people, to schools, and to a town is something she is most looking forward to with a (slightly) more settled position.

“I’ve had to sacrifice not always have a church I belong to, I had to sacrifice not feeling that sense of community, and I feel I’m finally at a point where I have the kids who want to participate in this or that, we have a great school district,” she says. “It’s finally building that sense of community.”

Hard-Won Experience

But she still speaks fondly of her days as a search and rescue and law enforcement leader, which most notably saw her lead the “boots on deck” effort to make safe and clean up following the Deepwater Horizon disaster that spilled hundreds of millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico and killed 11 people.

“I ran all the small boats, all the pollution response to that case,” Eva says. “I had my people out there in the small boats, hauling the booms, keeping the safety zones...My stations were talking to local parishes and doing the outreach there to assure them that the fishery side and all the disparate aspects of their life down there were being protected as best as possible.”

Eva also had a newborn at home at the time, making those few months some of the most strenuous and demanding of her life—though again, she describes it in almost fond terms, turning the complicated and harrowing experience into something of an art and seeing the challenge as an opportunity to push herself to the furthest reaches of strength and endurance.

“I just had a baby down there, which worked out okay, because she was up all night and so was I,” she says, laughing.

It was this high-profile job and the work she put in there that helped elevate her to a higher command and responsibility, Eva says. And though she doesn’t often get to fight through storms on the deck of a ship, there are some aspects of her role now that are much more difficult than that kind of challenge.

Just last month, Eva says she had to fly out from Connecticut to Long Island to let the parents of a 16-year-old boy know that rescue efforts were being called off for their son after he went fishing and disappeared.

“Being able to be that link between the family and the search is really important,” she says. “Not everybody can do it. It’s tough.”

Speaking to family members in these cases, when an unthinkable tragedy strikes and someone must deliver the news, is something Eva says she feels is part of her commitment to service, knowing that someone has to do it. She says she still remembers the faces of these sons and daughters, fathers and mothers when they learn a loved one will not be coming home.

“You would think that it gets easier,” she says. “It doesn’t.”

It’s the strength to be the kind of leader who takes on the hardest jobs that Eva says she wants young people— particularly women and women of color—to see, and know that their power can help them rise to whatever goal they choose. As the first woman to command this area for the Coast Guard—even going back to before it became its own sector 15 years ago—Eva says she knows her journey and her struggles will inspire other girls and women to keep striving.

“I’m excited to see what I can show to some of the younger women out there, the girls growing up, and being that role model for my daughter and other kids that you can do almost anything if you set your mind to it, and work hard,” she says.

It hasn’t come easily, though, and likely still won’t for future women leaders, according to Eva. While she credited the Coast Guard for working to change its culture and encourage more leadership opportunities for women and minorities, the male-dominated world of the military, like many other places and industries, still forces women to work harder to prove themselves.

“Anywhere you go...there are fewer women in these positions. And while our numbers don’t exactly show that, the Coast Guard academy is at almost 40 percent women now, which is amazing. If we can retain...the talent that we’re bringing in, I think that’s the key,” she said.

The Coast Guard has named three more female sector commanders in the New England area since Van Camp took her command, she says. She said she continues to participate in various women’s leadership organizations, serving as a mentor both formally and informally with the hope that more glass ceilings can be shattered.

Eva says she knows it is not just the military, but everywhere from business management to science and engineering where women continue to miss out on leadership opportunities. It will take continued work at the structural level and support from the upper echelons to change this, she says.

But it also helps to have someone with both strength and empathy carving out a path ahead of you—something Eva has done for every girl and young woman who hopes one day to start a company, design a new technology, or command a ship.

Or even a fleet of ships.