Opportunities she never dreamed of
Joan Murray was attending college yet struggling to find direction in her life when she decided to enlist in the United States Coast Guard in May 1983.
A Rockville, Md. native, Murray spent her last summer at the University of Maryland driving buses to earn extra money for her education.
"One of my co-workers told me he was going to join the Army, and the idea of joining the service stewed around in my mind," Murray said. "The more I thought about it, the service was a good idea. I narrowed my choice down to the Navy and Coast Guard. I chose the Coast Guard because I felt they were actually doing things at the time, while the Navy was preparing for things."
Murray intended to enlist for just four years, but 20 years later she was enjoying a career in the Coast Guard, earning a living and getting to travel the world.
"I did all sorts of things I never would have dreamed about doing," Murray said.
A challenging career
Murray spent the majority of her career in the Coast Guard serving as an electrician's mate, first stationed in Oregon.
Throughout her career, she called several places home including Virginia, Seattle and Hawaii, where she was stationed for three and a half years.
"I remember many times relocating and driving across the country with children and countless pets," Murray said. "But I was fortunate to have some say in where my next station was."
As an electrician's mate, Murray worked on small and large boats as well as the occasional ship traveling throughout the Caribbean. Most of the international duties Murray was involved with were located in the Caribbean doing drug and migrant interdiction.
In 1996, Murray also participated in a joint military humanitarian mission in Haiti.
"We helped paint an orphanage there, and it was very humbling to see these parts of the world and just how bad the conditions were, even in 1996," Murray said.
Although she was enjoying her travels and career in the Coast Guard, Murray also faced many obstacles during her service.
"It was not a nine to five job – it was challenging," Murray said. "Early on in my career, only a handful of ships had women. The first woman in the Coast Guard enlisted around 1976 and when I enlisted, there were still many guys who had never worked with women."
When Murray retired, of the 1,000 electrician's mates in the Coast Guard, only 20 were women.
"It was unique working in a non-traditional position, and seeing the progression of co-ed crews throughout the years and today is nice," Murray said.
Perhaps one of the greatest opportunities the Coast Guard provided for Murray was the chance to meet her future husband.
"I met my husband during boot camp, which is eight weeks long. The last week you worked in the galley, and he was finishing up his last week there while I was just beginning my first week on a tour of the galley," Murray said.
The couple wrote letters throughout Murray's time in boot camp and once they were married, her husband was transferred from Massachusetts to Oregon to be stationed with Murray.
After two decades of service, Murray retired from the Coast Guard in April 2003 as a Chief Petty Officer. Her husband retired after her, having spent 28 years in the service.
"I knew if I stayed in I'd be placed on another ship, and I wanted to be home more and around the kids," Murray said.
Murray and her husband relocated to Rutherford County in 2008. She says the area is the first place she has lived that is this far inland.
The couple has two children, a 25-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old son who enlisted in the Coast Guard, "carrying on the tradition," Murray said. Murray's younger brother was also in the service, spending five years in the U.S. Navy.
Currently, Murray is involved with the American Legion Post 74 in Rutherford County and enjoys helping the organization with events like the Salute to Veterans celebration.
She says sometimes her husband even breaks out his service uniform from the closet to wear.
"My most memorable experience while in the service is a combination of many things. I loved living in other places, seeing the places tourists don't and learning how others live," Murray said. "The Coast Guard is a small service branch so you always ran into somebody you knew. My last station was in Yorktown, and I remember constantly seeing acquaintances."
Although it has been more than 10 years since she retired, Murray is still surprised she spent over four years in the Coast Guard.
"I enjoyed being able to do something worthwhile with my life while contributing to the cause and traveling to many places," Murray said. "I enjoyed it, I really did."