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Faith, Resilience Propel Latter-day Saint Woman to Become Rear Admiral in U.S. Coast Guard Reserve

Joanna Hiigel is the fourth woman selected to rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve

This story appears here courtesy of TheChurchNews.com. It is not for use by other media.

By Trent Toone, Church News

Joanna Hiigel was a top student in high school but said she struggled to earn C’s at the United States Coast Guard Academy in the early 1990s.

While failing two classes her junior year, she considered leaving the academy to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But she didn’t think her grades were high enough to be readmitted.

Hiigel wrestled with what to do and prayed for heavenly guidance. Finally, she concluded that if she was still failing at the end of the semester, she would serve a mission. If her grades improved, she would stay at the academy.

To Hiigel’s surprise and slight dismay — “I was ready to go” — her grades improved and she stayed. It was a decision that affected the course of her life.

Rear Adm. Joanna Hiigel of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve stands at the wheel of the Eagle, a training ship for Coast Guard Academy cadets, on June 24, 2024. Photo provided by Joanna Hiigel, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

The following year, Hiigel shared the gospel of Jesus Christ with the man she eventually married in the Portland Oregon Temple, and they embarked on careers in the U.S. Coast Guard.

Three decades after her decision, her husband, Capt. Mark Hiigel, is a helicopter pilot for the Coast Guard. Two of their three daughters recently graduated from the Coast Guard Academy and hold the rank of ensign in the Coast Guard.

The family has lived in Puerto Rico, Washington, Oregon, California, Florida, Alabama and Massachusetts. They are currently stationed in southern Florida.

Most notably, Joanna Hiigel has become the fourth woman selected to the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve. She was officially promoted on July 1.

Hiigel feels a great sense of responsibility for the 6,000 Coast Guard reserves and their families. She is grateful for the years of experience that have shaped her as a leader, wife, mother and Latter-day Saint. She finds inspiration in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”

“In all of my assignments, the Lord has blessed me with amazing people in my path,” she said. “The Coast Guard has truly been an amazing journey that I never thought would lead me to still being in the service, let alone selected to serve as a flag officer. It is very humbling and an honor to continue to serve the citizens of our nation.”

Charting a Course

The second of eight children, Joanna Hiigel was raised by parents who were school teachers. When her older brother earned an Army ROTC scholarship to BYU, her father suggested she consider a similar route to college.

Hiigel wasn’t very interested, but appeased her father by skimming some pamphlets outside the school counselor’s office. That’s where she found a brochure about the Coast Guard Academy. She applied and was accepted, but still wasn’t sure she wanted to go.

One reason involved her faith. Hiigel grew up surrounded by Latter-day Saints. At the academy, she would be one of five Church members among 1,000 cadets.

“I didn’t know if my testimony was strong enough, or if I could handle the rigorous academics,” she said.

With her father’s encouragement, Hiigel attended the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, where she had experiences that fortified her faith and prepared her for the future.

Rear Admiral Joanna Hiigel of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve is pictured with cadets on the Eagle, a training ship for Coast Guard Academy cadets, on June 24, 2024. Photo provided by Joanna Hiigel, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

“That defining moment strengthened my testimony,” she said.

Years later, after deciding to remain at the academy and improve her grades, Joanna was presented with a missionary opportunity when she met Mark Hiigel, who noted there was something different about her.

“I told him it was the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” she said.

Mark Hiigel was skeptical of her answer, but accepted an invitation to read the Book of Mormon and attend Sunday worship services. He later accepted the gospel and the couple were married.

Joanna Hiigel said she earned her highest grades during the start of her senior year when she completed the least amount of homework, but she felt a spiritual outpouring as her husband met with the missionaries and gained a testimony.

“It was amazing to witness the ‘mighty change of heart’ that occurs in the lives of those sincerely willing to search for and accept truth,” she said. “I look on this as one of the miracles from the Lord confirming my answer to stay at academy, graduate and continue as a Coast Guard officer.”

Life in the Coast Guard

Joanna Hiigel graduated from the academy in 1995. After five years of active duty, she became pregnant with the couple’s first child and transitioned to the Coast Guard Reserve.

Rear Adm. Joanna Hiigel of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve was recently aboard the Eagle, a training ship for Coast Guard Academy cadets, on June 24, 2024. Photo provided by Joanna Hiigel, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

“It’s been 24 years now, and I am so grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to serve and wear the Coast Guard uniform part time, while also being a wife and mother,” she said.

Coast Guard reservists hold civilian jobs and dedicate one weekend a month to their assigned Reserve duty stations. They train, keep ports and waterways safe, save mariners in peril and respond to disasters such as oil spills and hurricanes. The Hiigels were involved with the Coast Guard following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. On many occasions, the Hiigels have felt the Lord has placed them in the right place at the right time to help a person in need and be an answer to prayer.

“It’s important to be open to those experiences and to be in tune with the Spirit to answer those calls when they come,” Joanna Hiigel said.

Additionally, Coast Guard Reserve personnel stand ready to answer the call when service is needed in support of Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security or United States missions.

Mark Hiigel attended flight school to become a Coast Guard rescue pilot, then served active duty, which required the family to move every two to four years. Frequent moves were not always easy, but the family appreciated the resources provided by the Coast Guard and the Church.

“Our family found comfort in the stability of the Church and its programs as it is the same all over the world,” Mark Hiigel said.

Joanna Hiigel described life in the Coast Guard as “military service full of adventure.” She has surfed in Puerto Rico and Hawaii, walked Boston’s Freedom Trail, explored Church history sites, dived in Caribbean waters and hiked Alaskan glaciers.

The best part, however, is always the people and friendships they have made. The moving around has also allowed the Hiigels to serve a variety of Church callings.

“The blessing is we now have friends all over the nation,” she said.

As a rear admiral, Joanna Hiigel follows in the footsteps of Mary P. O’Donnell, the first woman promoted to that rank, in 2000, according to the Coast Guard’s website. Adm. Linda Fagan made history in 2022 when she was appointed the first woman commandant of the Coast Guard. Fagan was also the first woman to lead any of the U.S. military branches.

Hiigel’s two oldest daughters, Tana and Ellie, recently graduated from the Coast Guard Academy. Tana, who served a Spanish-speaking mission in Orem, Utah, will begin her five years of Coast Guard service on a ship on the East Coast. Her sister Ellie will serve on a ship on the West Coast. Both agreed they were inspired by their parents’ service in the Coast Guard while raising a family in the gospel.

The youngest Hiigel daughter, Kendra, just finished her junior year of high school and attended a summer program at the Coast Guard Academy. She says having a Coast Guard family can be a lot of fun, despite the frequent moves across the country.

“Though this can be hard and lonely sometimes, I have relied on my family and depended on the Lord for protection,” Kendra Hiigel said. “I am grateful for modern technology to stay connected to my sisters once they left for the academy and my friends all over the nation. The Lord has helped me to know that I am never alone.”

Adm. Hiigel’s family currently resides in the Miami Lakes Florida Stake, where she serves as the ward adult Sunday School teacher.

A Spiritual Maritime Rescue

Earlier in their marriage, Mark Hiigel’s great-grandfather, a nonmember, compiled family history records and gave them to the young couple. Mark and Joanna Hiigel spent the first years of their marriage researching and performing temple work for his family.

On July 1, 2024, Latter-day Saint Joanna Hiigel, second from left, became the fourth woman selected as a rear admiral in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve. She is pictured with her daughters, Ensigns Tana and Ellie Hiigel, Kendra Hiigel, and husband, Capt. Mark Hiigel. Photo provided by Joanna Hiigel, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

One family history story is especially meaningful. Through their research, they learned Mark Hiigel’s ancestors were shipbuilders from Hamburg, Germany, who emigrated to America in the 1850s. Tragically, the ship carrying the parents caught fire and all were lost at sea. Their sons traveled on another ship and arrived penniless in America.

The Hiigel family history records had the names of the sons, but not the parents who perished. After years of searching, documentation with the parents’ names was found and the family was able to complete their temple work.

Joanna Hiigel says the Coast Guard’s values of honor, respect and devotion to duty mirror principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“The mission to rescue distressed mariners parallels the gospel’s design to save souls,” Joanna Hiigel said. “We had the overwhelming feeling that as Coasties, even though we could not physically rescue them all those years ago from perishing at sea, we were so blessed to be able to play a small part in saving them in the eternities and seal our family together forever.”

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