Honor, Respect, Devotion to Duty: Cmdr. Zeita Merchant

Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Lauren Laughlin

CDRMerchant“It’s about the people.”

This one statement alone dictates Cmdr. Zeita Merchant’s outlook on her career in the Coast Guard and how she views breaking barriers.

“There comes a point in your career where it stops being about you, but what you can contribute to the greater good, and for a long time now for me it has been about service to nation and about how I can serve others,” said Merchant.

Merchant assumed the duties of the commanding officer of Marine Safety Unit Chicago in July and became the first African-American female in the Coast Guard to command a marine safety unit (MSU). She is also the first female to command an MSU in the Great Lakes.

But Merchant is not afraid of being the first or doing something new. She started her Coast Guard career this way as a graduate of the first Officer Candidate School (OCS) class at the Coast Guard Academy, class 01-99, and has since come full circle.

Merchant was born on the west side of Chicago in an inner-city region called the Austin District. In 2015, the Chicago Police Department recorded 50 homicides in the Austin neighborhood, making the area the highest in homicide-related incidents in Chicago.IMG_5892

Her parents were from Mississippi and after experiencing numerous financial and economical challenges with raising five children in the city, they decided to move back when Merchant was in grade school.

She attended college in Jackson, Mississippi, where she met Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Mike Soto, a local recruiter, who told her about the Minority Officer Recruiting Program (MORE), now called the College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative.

“I didn’t seek out the Coast Guard,” she said. “I can honestly say I had never heard about the Coast Guard at all, but after learning about the Coast Guard and its humanitarian missions, I was sold.”

Cmdr. Merchant and her OCS class.

Cmdr. Merchant and her OCS class.

OCS class 01-99 had 33 graduates, 18 were in the MORE program and only eight were women.

“We were probably one of the most ethnically diverse classes to graduate from OCS as my class was 55% minority.”

Since graduating from OCS, Merchant has had a colorful career throughout the Coast Guard, serving in Texas, Miami and Washington D.C.

It was during her first tour in D.C. when Merchant had the opportunity to meet Dr. Olivia Hooker, the first African-American woman to enlist in the Coast Guard. During Merchant’s last tour in D.C., she said she was honored to help the Coast Guard celebrate Hooker’s 100th birthday.

Cmdr. Merchant and Dr. Hooker.

Cmdr. Merchant and Dr. Hooker.

Merchant says that her inspiration comes from the people she has encountered throughout her career – the good and the bad.

“I would not be here without the guidance and support of the incredible women and men that invested in me,” she said.

Her speech during the change of command ceremony at MSU Chicago, though short and sweet, was full of attribution to those who had invested in her: her mother, her family, her mentor Rear Adm. Stephen Rochon, her Coast Guard family, her college family and those in the long blue line that was established the moment she reported to boot camp.

Cmdr. Merchant and her mentor, Rear Adm. Rochon.

Cmdr. Merchant and her mentor, Rear Adm. Rochon.

“I am here because of the enlisted crewmembers, chief petty officers, warrant and commissioned officers and civilians who supported and guided me along throughout my career.”

On breaking her most recent barrier, Merchant says that it is not about her, but about all the people behind her who now know they can do the same.

And to those looking to achieve success as she has, Merchant has this piece of advice to give:

“Get comfortable with being uncomfortable because with every uncomfortable experience comes an opportunity to grow and become a better you. So in everything you do, make sure it’s harder, tougher, and more challenging than what you previously accomplished.”

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