It was a first day she’d never forget.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Kate Higgins, commanding the 110-foot cutter Baranof in the North Arabian Gulf off the coast of Iraq, noticed smoke billowing off in the distance.
“I thought, I’m new here but that doesn’t look right,” said Higgins.
She soon learned that an Iraqi oil terminal off the coast had caught fire, but they didn’t know how. “We were very concerned about the cause. It could have been an attack,” she said.
The fire escalated quickly. “In 40 seconds it went from black smoke to 40-foot flames,” said Higgins.
Regardless, the 28-year-old from Reston ordered her boat into the terminal. “We were afraid there were people in the water,” said Higgins.
The Baranof and another nearby Coast Guard cutter on patrol that day rescued 15 people. “They were covered in oil and some of them were in shock,” said Higgins.
The fire turned out to be an industrial accident.
SINCE MAY, Higgins has been stationed out of a port in Bahrain, Kuwait as part of a security detail for two Iraqi oil terminals, which account for about 85 percent of the new government’s income.
According to Higgins, there is a 3,000-meter warning zone off the coast of Iraq that she patrols.
“Our primary goal is to keep people who haven’t been cleared out of that zone,” she said. The job is difficult and she’s often leading her crew toward unknown vessels that need to be checked out.
Higgins, who graduated from the Coast Guard Academy a year before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, realizes her assignment has thrown her onto the front lines in the war on terror.
Yet people are often surprised to find out that the Coast Guard is even in Iraq, said Higgins, who is the only female commander in the North Arabian Gulf.
“It’s very important to me that we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves,” said Higgins.
She said it’s something she often reminds her 22-member crew as they navigate the gulf in blazing heat and humidity through what Higgins calls a “beige fog” and an area that smells “much like a gas station.”
EACH DAY, Higgins works to maintain a high-level of alert and readiness among her 22-member crew. “Stress can come from our everyday operations,” said Higgins, who added that it’s her job to make sure everyone is ready for the unexpected.
It’s something Higgins learned on a previous assignment when she was sent to New Orleans to help in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath.
“I flew in the day after the levees broke,” said Higgins. The devastation was indescribable, she said. “The pictures didn’t really do it justice.”
As a crew member of another cutter, Higgins spent a lot of time in the city and around the city helping people escape the ravaged coast. Her three months in the region were marked by what she called “everyday heroism.”
“I met people who had lost everything,” she said. She recalled one family, a mother and daughter, who lost their 100-year-old home and all their belongings. Amid despair and destruction, the mother, who was in her eighties, was determined to come back and rebuild, said Higgins.
“It was one of the most rewarding things I’ve done,” said Higgins of her time in New Orleans. A few months later she received orders to take command of the Baranof.