One of Sandy Stosz's favorite childhood memories is of the trips her family took each summer from Ellicott City to her grandparents' home near Cape Cod, and the little rowboat that she and her three brothers were allowed to take out on the Great Bay when they were deemed old enough.
"She always loved the water," Stosz's mother, Joy, recalled recently.
"Those humble beginnings," as Stosz jokingly called them, led to her pursuing a career in the U.S. Coast Guard and her recent promotion to rear admiral lower half. Stosz, 49, became the first female graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy to earn the Coast Guard's fourth-highest rank.
Stosz's life turned on this course during her junior year at Mount Hebron High School in 1976.
"A neighbor of ours brought a newspaper article saying that the Naval Academy would start accepting women," Stosz said. "I remember thinking about all the cool things you could do there and it said they would give you a stipend. I had to look up the word in the dictionary to see what a stipend was."
Stosz was able to get a nomination from then-newly elected Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. As a backup, Stosz also applied to the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.
"Who knew what the Coast Guard Academy was?" Stosz said.
When she found out she was an alternate at the Naval Academy and had been accepted at the Coast Guard Academy, her mother insisted she take the more solid offer. It turned out to be a prescient decision: Had she gone to Annapolis, Stosz would not have been assigned to a ship upon graduation.
"What I heard was that there was a lot of resentment toward the women who graduated from the Naval Academy from the men because the women were assigned to some cushy office job and the men were immediately shipped out," said Stosz, who graduated in 1982.
Assigned to the icebreaker Glacier and headed for Antarctica, Stosz began what has been a nearly three-decade adventure. Her first trip included stops in Tahiti and New Zealand and a four-day stay in Peru, where she and other newly commissioned ensigns toured the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu.
"I always wanted to see the world," she said.
Stosz even met her future husband while at sea. Assigned to the icebreaker Polar Star in 1983, Bob Volpe, a fireman on the ship, noticed the only woman on board. "It was hard not to notice me," she said. "I don't even remember him."
They were married two years ago and live in Arlington, Va.
Stosz acknowledges that the one thing she has sacrificed in building her career was a family.
"It's hard being away at sea; sometimes you're away for six months at a time," Stosz said.
Stosz spent about 12 years at sea and fulfilled a longtime goal of commanding her own ship. She did it twice, once on an ice-breaking tug on the Great Lakes and the other on a medium-endurance cutter patrolling the North Atlantic and Caribbean.
Among her missions were drug and alien migrant interdiction, enforcement of fisheries and search and recovery. Stosz has also served as military assistant for the secretary of transportation and the Coast Guard commandant's executive assistant. Stosz received her master's in business administration from Northwestern University.
After 16 assignments, Stosz is now director of enterprise strategy, management and doctrine oversight at U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington.
"I'm too old to be at sea," Stosz said.
Stosz doesn't seem to mind being landlocked. Even when she visits her mother, who now lives at Stosz's grandparents' home, Stosz doesn't spend much time on the water. Her grandparents are gone and so is the old rowboat.
"I had plenty of time on the water," she said. "When all you see is blue water for six months at a time, it's the last thing you want to do. It's nice to go out for a hike in the woods or a walk and see green."