By Martie Thompson
Sandy Mitten considers herself just an “ordinary person” … but she has certainly done extraordinary things. Originally from Milwaukee, Wis., she joined the Navy right after graduating from high school in 1959, at a time when there weren’t many women signing up. She was assigned to the legal department while awaiting entrance into radio school, but in the meantime got married and then pregnant. Her Navy career ended just 18 months after it began, as she was honorably discharged with the reason of “pregnancy,” due to the standard at the time. She never made it to radio school. Fast forward about 14 years later, and she had three children and two ex-husbands. She joined the Coast Guard Reserve and then retired as a Chief Petty Officer in 2001. In between, she was called up with her unit, the first reserve unit in the history of the United State Coast Guard to be activated, to be part of Operation Desert Storm. She was the first Coast Guard woman to serve overseas in a combat role — at age 49. Her poignant letter from Saudi Arabia to her mother was featured in a book by Andrew Carroll entitled “War Letters” and she was further honored this past summer to receive the Woman of Valor pin, given to just 10 women, and the Military Women’s Living Legend Award. She has nine grandchildren and is “head flocker” for her five tropical birds and “Grandma” to her cat, Lola Folana.
Q: Why did you join the Coast Guard Reserve?
A: It was 1974 and I had just moved back to Milwaukee as a single mother with my young children. I got a factory job with Briggs and Stratton, but I was looking ahead to retirement so I decided to join the Naval Reserve. The recruiter I talked to told me that I would require too many waivers — age, young children, and too long of a break since my service — so he recommended I try the Coast Guard Reserve.
Q: What were some of your duties with the Coast Guard Reserve?
A: I worked in the marine safety office first and in 1980 when the Coast Guard formed the Rapid Deployment Force, I became part of that. There were 87 of us, six were women and I was the leading female. I was a gunner’s mate and we trained as if we were going to war with all the other branches of service, thinking we would never go to war — but we did. The Coast Guard has been involved in every United States war since the beginning.
I was called up for training in September 1990, thinking I’d be home in time for my oldest son’s wedding at the end of the month. Five days into training we were activated and I found myself in Saudi Arabia by the time of the wedding. My family videoed the wedding and reception and sent it to me and told me, “Throw your boots on a table and enjoy the wedding.”
I was part of the Port Security Unit 303 and was a gunner for a .50 caliber machine gun on a 22 foot patrol boat in the Persian Gulf. At age 49, I was a grandmother and earned the nickname “Gulf War Granny.” My tour was for six months and then I came home and continued serving in the Reserves for another 10 years.
Q: How did you come to live in Mandarin?
A: I moved here in 2010 to be close to my children and grandchildren. My home in Mandarin was the 21st home I looked at when I was house hunting. I like that it is not in a homeowners association, it is ranch style, and it doesn’t have a swimming pool. I have an associate’s degree in ornamental horticulture and I enjoy landscaping. My neighbors are very friendly and I’m glad I live here.
Q: How did you find out about being awarded the Military Women’s Living Legend Award?
A: It was a complete surprise to me. I was in Washington DC to receive the Woman of Valor pin. I had donated one of my uniforms to the Military Women’s Memorial and while I was there, they took pictures of me in front of my displayed uniform. That’s when I was told I was also being awarded the Living Legend Award.
I’ve had so many blessings and opportunities and I remain in awe.
Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?
A: I’m retired, but I’m busy. I maintain my own home and yard. I’m a member of the River City Dance Club and a very active member of Mandarin Lutheran Church. I’m at the church volunteering three or four times a week.
Photo courtesy Carron Lucero