From the Homefront: Ombudsman of the Year brings sense of ‘ohana’ to unit

Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of requirements and analysis at Coast Guard headquarters, for 14 years. She currently serves as an advisor for the Military Family Advisory Network.

Written by Shelley Kimball

2015 Ombudsman of the Year, Annie Leighton, stands watch as an auxiliarist at Coast Guard Station Kauai, Hawaii. Photo couresty of Annie Leighton.

2015 Ombudsman of the Year, Annie Leighton, stands watch as an auxiliarist at Coast Guard Station Kauai, Hawaii. Photo couresty of Annie Leighton.

It’s the sense of ohana, or family, that Annie Leighton brings to Coast Guard Station Kauai, Hawaii. But it almost feels like that word isn’t even big enough to embrace all she is to the station.

They call her Auntie Annie. It’s a specific term of endearment on the island.

“Auntie – it’s a term used in Hawaii for someone who is older, friendly, supportive, and in my case, rather weird,” she said with a laugh.

Auntie Annie is not only an auxiliarist at the station, but she is also the ombudsman. And this year, she has been named the Wanda Allen-Yearout Ombudsman of the Year.

The award was created in 2009 to recognize the active duty or reserve ombudsman who has demonstrated the greatest contribution to the Coast Guard and families by maintaining open lines of communication between the command and families, and assisting in identifying and helping to provide the support services most needed. It was officially named the next year in honor of a Coastie spouse who was a driving force behind the ombudsman program.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Seth Carter, the officer in charge at Station Kauai, said he nominated Annie for the award because she is such a big help in so many ways – whether standing watch as an auxiliarist or going out of her way to assist families.

Photo by Bill Keefrey.

Photo by Bill Keefrey.

“I nominated Auntie Annie because simply put, I truly believe she is the best ombudsman in the Coast Guard,” he said. “I know there’s some partiality there, but Annie has a genuine care for every person here and passionately does everything in her power to ensure her Coasties are being cared for.”

Auntie Annie (don’t ever call her Ms. Leighton – it’s Annie or Auntie Annie) came to the station about 10 years ago as an auxiliarist. She qualified as a communications and security watch stander. And then she was asked to become the ombudsman.

Her connection to the Coast Guard goes back even further than that, though. She enlisted around 1980.

“I lasted 17 days,” she said. “It was a traumatic experience, but it gave me a really high regard for the service.”

The regimentation just wasn’t for her. But she uses that experience now to help out any Coastie who feels homesick or overwhelmed.

“It enables me to have a little sympathy and empathy for them,” she said.

After leaving the Coast Guard, she ran a motorcycle shop on the island. About 20 years later, her business was bought out, and she had more time on her hands.

Her dedication to the Coast Guard hadn’t left her, so she came back to it.

She said the core values are what made her originally want to be part of the Coast Guard. It’s things like the fact that everyone from the commandant down wears the same uniform. As an auxiliarist, that makes her feel like part of the team, she said. And the fact that women in the Coast Guard can pursue any career in the service for which they qualify.

“That ethos is really showing through as I watch people come through the station,” she said.

She said it’s an honor for her to be part of the life at the station. Being both an auxiliarist and an ombudsman makes it possible for her to check in on both the active duty members and their families.

The families, especially, deserve the support, she said.

Juggling all that comes with living in a new place, especially when the active duty member is out on a cutter, she said. Finding work, getting kids in schools — it can be a lot to handle.

Photo courtesy of Seth Carter.

Photo courtesy of Seth Carter.

“The families carry a heavy load,” she said. “That’s just got to be tremendously challenging for a lot of families.”

And now she’s pretty much an institution at the station, Carter said.

“Auntie Annie’s smile and big heart are contagious throughout the station,” he said. “I kind of joke about this at times, but I truly believe this – Auntie Annie is the station mother. She has a sensitive honest way about her that people seek out, because they know Auntie Annie will give her direct wisdom to you, like it or not, command included. It never comes across as brash but, rather, encouraging and loving in nature.”

That’s part of what she loves about working with the station, she said. Her input as ombudsman matters to command, and the support she receives from everyone at the station makes it easier to do her job. Without command and cadre support, she said, it just won’t work as well.

“The support and the buy-in that happens at this station is so important,” she said. “If these guys are getting half of what I am getting out of this, then we’re all winning.”

If you are a new member of the ohana at Station Kauai, Auntie Annie will likely meet you at the airport. It’s intentional. She wants to make sure everyone arriving knows that they have a friend waiting for them there. It also gives her a chance to meet families right away, from the moment they hit the island. She knows how hard it can be to move to an unfamiliar place, and she tries to alleviate the uneasiness.

“I think it’s so important to have someone with a smile on their face to say, ’I kind of get how you feel. I’m here.’” she said.

Annie grew up in Hawaii, but she left to go to college on the mainland. She never felt quite at home, so she came back after graduation. She is the fourth generation of her family to live there, and it is important to her to share her knowledge of island life with Coastie families as a way to help them adjust.

For example, she helps families prepare for hurricane season by talking to them about her experiences riding out four hurricanes and how to be ready. She said she tells families how to be smart about the supplies they need so that they can come out the other side of the storm safely. Preparation and awareness diminish the fear factor, she said.

“It helps having the reassurance of someone who is local and says, ‘Yeah, I’ve been through this. It’s nothing to get freaked out about.’”

That effort is making a difference, Carter said. Families know they can count on Annie to get them through.

“When families are dealing with life events they want a person they are comfortable with, and hold complete trust in,” Carter said. “Annie is that person.Annie is the type of person that you know you could call anytime, and she would drop whatever she’s doing and be there for you. Rain or shine, day or night, she will be there and has been there.”

Under Annie’s influence, the station has become a community, Carter said. Annie organizes outings around the island for the spouses that have brought a sense of unity to everyone, he said.

“I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned from Auntie Annie is lead with your heart, not your head,” Carter said. “Annie truly understands that the most valuable part of our service is the people who populate it, dependents included. She absolutely understands that if the homefront is at ease, then we will achieve the most productivity from our people.”

So for Auntie Annie, her ohana at Station Kauai has personal significance, not only because her ancestral roots on the island run deeply, but because it includes her devotion to Coasties. She said it’s important to spend retirement doing something you love, and devoting her time to the station has been both rewarding and satisfying.

“It’s a real privilege to be part of that,” she said. “It’s really up to me to honor my family, honor the island, honor the aloha spirit, honor the Coast Guard.”

Send a note of congratulations to Annie below. Or how about a shout out to a great ombudsman you know?

Photo courtesy of Annie Leighton.

Photo courtesy of Annie Leighton.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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