Five years ago, Capt. Andrea Marcille said, she had to choose between commanding a ship and becoming a mother.
If she went to sea on a major Coast Guard cutter for two years, for her next assignment she would be a strong candidate for a job considered one of the best in the service — leading the crew of the barque Eagle and training the next generation of Coast Guard officers who sail aboard the ship.
Marcille was the first woman to serve as the executive officer — the second-in-command — on the New London-based ship and many within the Coast Guard hoped she would be Eagle's first female commander.
At the age of 40, she said, her goal of starting a family seemed more distant than ever.
"I realized I didn't want to be defined in my life just by being a successful Coast Guard officer," Marcille said recently. "Any military service is very noble and, I think, very rewarding for folks that serve. But I didn't want it to define me. I thought I could do more. I thought I could offer more. One of the greatest gifts is to be able to pass on what you've learned in life to someone else, to your children. I wanted that opportunity."
Marcille didn't take the job. Her son, Alex, is 3 1/2 years old.
Today she is the director of the Coast Guard's Leadership Development Center, the development center at the Coast Guard Academy in New London that teaches thousands of Coast Guard members each year how to be better leaders.
Laurel Goulet, a professor at the academy, said it's almost as if the job at the center was "tailor-made" for Marcille.
"She's so into helping other people develop and now she's in a position where she can do that, not only on an individual basis, but for the whole Coast Guard," Goulet said. "She has an impact on the entire service."
Marcille said she cherishes helping others who are at a crossroads, whether it's her students, staff or friends, figure out what's important to them and make decisions based on those values.
She doesn't tell them to follow her path. Rather, she helps them form the right questions to find their own way.
"I didn't take the time to do that. I wish I had done that sooner, really clarified what I valued and worked toward that. I'd have more kids. I'm not ashamed to say that I'd have more kids now if I wasn't 45," she said. "I enjoyed my career and I have no regrets. That's why I have nine nieces and nephews to spoil."
When Goulet was questioning whether she wanted to stay in teaching, she turned to Marcille.
"She never tells you what to do. She has this ability to ask you the questions that help you think it through," Goulet said. "I've seen her do it a million times with me, and with other people. It's really quite an amazing talent."
Goulet spent less time teaching and started a mentoring program for the faculty with Marcille, a project that she says reenergized her.
"I'm back to a full load of teaching and I've never felt better," Goulet said. "She's just so darn smart about this stuff."
Lt. Cmdr. Corinna Fleischmann, an assistant professor at the academy, said Marcille showed her that it's possible to have a child and a successful Coast Guard career.
"You feel comfortable that you can go to her and ask questions that maybe are not necessarily military-acceptable questions, like, 'I want to start a family but I have a chance to go afloat. What are the pros and cons of either path,'" Fleischmann said. "And she'll talk openly."
Today Fleischmann has a young daughter and she secured one of the few permanent teaching jobs for officers at the academy. Marcille has "a gift" for mentoring people, Fleischmann said.
"She has always turned around and helped pull people up so they can achieve their goals," she said. "It's funny how things work out because I don't think there's a better position for her in the Coast Guard."
Marcille is a New London native. When she was 3, her family moved to a house on Ledyard Street, roughly a mile from the academy. Her father, Frank, served 20 years in the Navy.
After graduating from the Coast Guard Academy in 1989, Marcille went on to split her time between assignments at sea and within the Coast Guard's training system.
She was the academy's cadet training officer from 2005 to 2010.
Now she leads the center's staff of 86 people, who teach 23 courses in three locations to more than 4,000 students annually. She plans to retire from the Coast Guard in the summer of 2014.
Her son, Alex, is too young to understand what she does. He visits her at the academy when the cadets march across the field during the regimental reviews. Marcille is in uniform at these events and she carries a ceremonial sword.
"He thinks I'm in a marching band," she said with a laugh.
When Alex is older, Marcille said she will tell him how much the Coast Guard has meant to her and her husband, Nicholas Mynuk. Mynuk retired from the Coast Guard in 2008.
"When I look at Alex, it seems comical that it was even a hard decision for me," she said. "It's the right decision in so many ways. But when anyone is at a crossroads, you can't see what is beyond the curves so it's hard to know what's the right path to take."
After many years, Marcille said she has found a balance between her job and her family. She said she's very grateful to her family for supporting her earlier in her career while she struggled to find that balance.
"Too often we let other people tell us what's important, or we let the organization define success for us. When you're younger and you don't have a lot of life experiences, it's easy to default to that. They say, 'This is important,' or he says, 'I should do this better.' And you do it," she said. "It takes us awhile to realize, 'does that mean success for me? Is that the right decision for me?' I see that happening today. Young women come into the Coast Guard who want to have a family and they feel compelled to be very career-focused. It's about finding the right balance and everyone is on that journey to figure out what a successful life is for them."
Marcille said her advice is, "Don't let someone else dictate what success means for you. It has to be your own path."
"I'd hate for someone to look back on a life or on a career and for it not to have meant everything to them," she said.
Recently Marcille spoke to a class at the center that included several prospective commanding officers. At the end, she asked everyone to raise a fist and think about the most influential people in their lives. She told them to lift a finger each time a name came to mind.
"What did those people do to earn that place on your hand," she said to the class. "What are you going to do to earn a place on someone else's hand?"
For Goulet, Fleischmann, and many others, Marcille has earned a place.
"She has definitely been one of the most influential people in my life," Goulet said. "I watch her interact with people and she has such a great way. She really is who I want to be."
"It's a very natural thing for her to mentor people and that's what she's supposed to be doing," Fleischmann said. "I just think that's her calling."