PITTSBURG — To Mariah Klenke her family and community are what helped her succeed in the United States Coast Guard Academy.

Klenke has followed in her family’s footsteps of serving in the military.

During the Coast Guard Academy graduation on May 23, her family represented almost every branch — U.S. Air Force, Marines, Army and Navy.

“We have every service represented in my little fan section,” she said.

Although she planned for the Naval Academy, instead she ended up at the Coast Guard Academy.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Klenke said. “I actually aimed at going to the Naval Academy because I was really interested and I had a sister who graduated from the Naval Academy in 2010.

“Through God’s hand I ended up in the Coast Guard Academy instead and it really has been a blessing, beyond anything I could have planned myself.”

She was accepted into the Coast Guard Academy in 2014, and similar to a four-year college, she began her journey as a government major studying public policy and law.

Now that she had graduated she will begin her first ensign tour, which will last 18 months. She is leaving Wednesday and will be stationed in Kittery, Maine where she will be on a 270-foot cutter.

Prior to joining she graduated from St. Mary’s Colgan and then spent one year at Pittsburg State University.

“I’m a proud Gorilla,” she said.

The academy is a little different than PSU. Although the students study text books the academy takes things a bit further.

“Tt’s a military academy,” she said, adding it is “very structured and strict physically and emotionally.”

It was so tough, she said, her class started out with 268 students and almost 200 graduated.

As many know, she said. It’s a military academy.

“Graduation was a great day,” she said with a smile and sigh.

Klenke said some of the structure seemed familiar to her experience at Colgan schools and she said she was thankful for the discipline she received there.

“The structure and discipline really helped me there,” she said.

Her family was also part of her success, she said.

“I had a lot of eye-opening moments when I was in the academy just on how I was raised,” she said. “Because my parents and siblings, they all have huge hearts and are very giving, really hard working … its very draining [at the academy], but it develops you in every way.”

One thing the Coast Guard didn’t mention, however, was how summers were going to affect the students.

“The academy is very structured during the academic year, the one thing they don’t do is they don’t advertise as much how rewarding summers are because you are really being developed in every aspect,” Klenke said. “The summers are when everything you learn in the textbook is put into play because you are put in a unit in a fleet and you are getting qualifications that you will actually use as an officer which is the goal of your four years there — to be a well rounded officer in the fleet.”

The first summer is a bootcamp summer, they call it “swamp summer,” she said.

The second summer they are out in the fleet filling the role of a junior enlisted person.

“It’s a summer of a lot of hard work and learning just how talented the enlisted fleet is,” she said.

“Without question, the first boat I was on, I was the least educated person.

“The seamen they had master’s degrees and you're sitting here learning from them and that’s an awesome perspective to have as a future officer.”

The following summer Klenke trained the incoming class.

“It’s a leadership summer and you’re training the incoming class,” she said. “You’re responsible for their development making them ready to be a cadet.”

The final summer at the academy people fill the role of a junior officer on the boat.

“You’re standing watches on the bridge — again putting everything to practice everything you’ve been learning over the four years and you can kind of see it all come together,” she said.

There is another important thing about summers, she said.

“It gives you a pretty big world perspective because somebody like me, from southeast Kansas, the furthest I’ve gone is Texas or to one of the coasts in the U.S.,” she said. “In the summer, you are working with people in other countries … I think it gives you a certain dose of pride and thankfulness to be an American, but it also gives you empathy and that world perspective that I think I really sought when I was in high school … I’ve definitely gotten that.”

One summer, Klenke received a Coast Guard Achievement Medal for giving the Heimlich maneuver and saving a life of a man in Astoria, Ore.
“We pulled up to a stop sign and I got a feeling, so I looked over and I saw people around a guy choking and I saw somebody just give up on him,” she said. “I jumped out of the car — it was pretty dramatic because I was in uniform — I gave him the Heimlich and walked him over to the pharmacy and got him water and talking again.”
The award, she said was just a “small part” in the Coast Guard.
“Most of the awards are friendship, those are the ones that are going to carry with you,” she said. “I wear the award in uniform, but the friendships you form will always be with you. “

Klenke gave a nod to her academic advisors, “the best people in the world from are my academic advisor and my classmates,” she said.

“You can’t get through it alone, it’s designed that way,” she said.

She said it’s impossible and some of her classmates struggled until they learned to lean on each other.

On the day of graduation she was commissioned as an ensign. A special moment she said, not only because she had made it through the academy, but her sister Naval Lt. Sarah Klenke had the honor of commissioning her sister with her entourage of military family in the stands watching.  

“That was a really special day,” she said. “It was just a lot of closure and peace and joy.

“Every emotion in one day because you do work so hard for four years.”

Klenke said she realized how fortunate she was to have such a supportive family.

“Every weekend, they were at basketball games for me,” she said. “Again, one more event my parents came to for me and it was really special,” she said.

Along with her family, her new friends at the academy she thanked the Pittsburg community which wrote letters of recommendation for her to go to the academy.

“People from all around Pittsburg wrote letters to help me get in,” she said. “I had so many letters just in support … I can’t even put into words the pride I felt the day I graduated.

“It’s really great feeling, I’m really blessed.”

— Stephanie Potter is a staff writer at the Morning Sun. She can be emailed at spotter@morningsun.net or follow her on Twitter @PittStephP and Instagram @stephanie_morningsun.