Ordinarily, you would expect the admiral’s wife to be leading a tour of the admiral’s residence and garden.
But not so at the quarters of Rear Adm. Cari Batson Thomas, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard District 14.
Her husband, Gary Thomas, is leading the tour and I am tagging along.
It is still rare these days for men to be the spouses of admirals in the military service, but not unheard of. Cari Thomas is one of five women out of a total of 42 admirals in the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Thomases are assigned to live in what I consider the most interesting house in Hawaii: the wooden residence built on a rock foundation next to Diamond Head Lighthouse.
I met Gary two years ago while researching my Diamond Head book. Since then he and Cari have become my friends. I especially admire the way they have opened up the lighthouse to as many people as possible — both civilians and military — and their eagerness to share information about the facility’s history.
Diamond Head Lighthouse is closed to the general public because it is the admiral’s home and government equipment inside must be safeguarded. But that does not stop people from wanting to visit.
Gary says when Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara, a former commander, was living at the lighthouse a woman sneaked into the house, took a shower in the bathroom, put on a clean pair of Coast Guard coveralls and took off on a stolen bike before the police caught her.
Another time, when Gary was giving a talk to a group of people he noticed their attention straying as they turned to watch a bypasser jump over the fence and run up into the lighthouse.
Gary says about 1,000 people walk past the facility every day.
“When I drive to the grocery store and open the gate to come into the garage, walkers walking around Diamond Head sometimes follow my car into the driveway and ask if they can come in to see the lighthouse.
“If I am free, I’ll say sure.”
Gary has made it his personal mission to usher in as many people to see the lighthouse as he has time to guide. He gives tours regularly to military and community groups and lighthouse buffs, who come from all over the country to check off Diamond Head on their personal lists of lighthouses they have visited.
“I enjoy meeting people. I have heard some incredible stories. One visitor was a 102-year-old man who walked up to the lighthouse from his apartment at Diamond Head and then climbed all the way to the top of the lighthouse.”
Gary is writing a book about the Diamond Head Lighthouse.
He has been interested in history since he was in elementary school in Florida and his parents packed up the children in their car for summer trips to museums and historic sites up and down the Eastern seaboard.
He says, “ It is easy for some people here to write off the Diamond Head Lighthouse as part of the large federal government complex, but telling its history connects it to the everyday life of Hawaii.
“People are engaged when they hear that the first Diamond Head Lighthouse keeper did not have an official dwelling here but had to walk to work here every day from his home in Kaimuki.
“History, when it is told as a timeline of dates, is boring, but when it’s presented with events affecting local residents, it’s appealing.”
The lighthouse was first lit July 1, 1899. The residence was not built until 1921. Since then the home but has been expanded and remodeled many times.
The house is what’s called in government parlance “a representational facility” or “rep fac,” which means it serves not only as the admiral’s residence but also as a public facility where social events are held to advance the purposes of the U.S. government and specifically the Coast Guard.
There is an office downstairs in the house when the admiral’s special command aide, Petty Officer 1st Class Marcos Martinez, arrives each day to manage the house and to cook for Cari and for official events.
Cari and Gary are responsible for cleaning and managing their private part of the house. Gary cooks their dinners most nights.
Once, he cooked and served a multi-course dinner to dignitaries when the command aide was too ill to come to work to prepare the formal meal.
Since getting to know Cari and Gary, it has been interesting to learn more about Gary’s role and to experience how difficult it still is for some people to accept that a woman can be a top commander in the military.
Once, when I tagged along on another of Gary’s tours, an elderly woman paused to look at Gary and Cari’s wedding picture in a glass case. The elderly woman asked me. “Is that a picture of your wedding, dear?” She wrongly assumed Gary was the admiral and that I was his wife.
I told her, “Oh no. Gary is married to Rear Admiral Cari Thomas, the commander of the Coast Guard’s largest area of responsibility stretching to Japan and Singapore. That is the wedding picture of Cari Thomas. She is the admiral.”
The elderly lady, half listening, just nodded her head and said to me, “Yes, dear. You must love living here at the lighthouse.”
That made me realize that, amazingly, it’s going to take more time before some people fully accept the idea that a woman can be the commanding officer of a ship or, as in Cari Thomas’ case, the commander of an entire Coast Guard district.
Gary retired from the Coast Guard three years ago with the rank of commander. I ask him if he minds that Cari outranks him. He answers, “I am exceptionally proud of what she has accomplished. I am a firm believer that she could be the commander of the entire Coast Guard if she wanted to. She has great skills, great strategic vision, but she also shows great care and concern for those who work for her.”
Gary says,” It has never bothered me. I have had a successful career of my own.”
He was in the thick of it from his first duty as an officer on the cutter Evergreen, which he was assigned to after he graduated from the Coast Guard Academy. While cruising off of the New England coast in winter, a shipmate on the Evergreen fell overboard in stormy, frigid seas. Gary was ordered to jump in to rescue him. That was in 1987, before the Coast Guard had formal rescue swimmer training.
He says he was selected to plunge into the icy water because he was a scuba diver who knew how to get into a wet suit fast and a strong swimmer, having grown up in Florida.
“I knew when I joined the Coast Guard, I knew I would be rescuing people but I never expected it would be one of my shipmates.”
In February 1993, when Gary was the commanding officer of the Coast Guard cutter Padre, he and his crew were on a routine patrol off the coast of Haiti when they were called to investigate the possible sinking of a ferry.
As the first Coast Guard vessel on the scene, they had the sorrowful job of retrieving dozens of dead men and women and a small child from a sea of floating bodies — all Haitians who had drowned when the overloaded ferry boat Neptune capsized in stormy seas off the coast of Haiti.
“Maneuvering the Padre through what would turn out to be hundreds of dead bodies was certainly something that neither my crew nor I were prepared for. While many of us had seen dead bodies in the water, no one had seen anything on the order of magnitude that we were experiencing.
“It was difficult to motivate the crew to keep focused to retrieve each body with the dignity it deserved, while at the same time to do their work safely.”
When it became apparent that they could not stop to recover every dead person, Gary made the decision to focus on searching for Haitians who might still be alive. “This meant cruising through an ever-increasing number of obviously dead people while looking for survivors.”
The sinking of the Neptune is considered one of the worst maritime disasters in recent history. Only about 285 people of the 2,000 aboard the ferry survived.
Gary’s final job in the Coast Guard was to close down the last existing long range navigational system support unit in the United States. The systems were largely displaced by GPS.
He currently serves as the executive director of the Foundation for Coast Guard History, a nonprofit that assists the Coast Guard Historian’s Office in Washington, D.C.
He also has a key role as an admiral’s spouse, which means to help and support his wife as well as to support all the Coast Guard spouses and their families in the district.
Gary is honorary president of the Coast Guard Spouses’ Association of Oahu, the only man in the 82-member group. He says at meetings they will say, “All right, ladies, let’s begin the meeting and I raise my hand and say, ‘And Gary.”
Kimberly Mourey, who is president of the club, says, “When we heard it was going to be a male spouse we were a little nervous, wondering if he would really support the club, but he has helped us with all our activities as a sounding board to give us guidance. He just fits in. Everyone is comfortable with him, including the junior spouses who sometimes are scared to death of a flag officer’s spouse.”
Mourey also says Gary brings a lot of knowledge to the spouses’ group because he has been on active duty himself.
Gary says, “Helping families of the Coast Guard is not a task but a privilege. It is a privilege to help solve a problem for someone who is junior to me. I don’t tell anyone what to do. I just point out the right direction. Some of the spouses who come here have married right out of high school and never been away from their homes and now they are 2,400 miles away from their relatives and their friends. It can be very lonely.”
The first time he was asked to join what was primarily a women’s club was in 1989 in Galveston, Texas, when Cari was away on sea duty. The club was then called the Officers’ Wives Club.
“I said I would join if they changed the name to the Spouses’ Club and that caused some hate and discontent among the older women members who wanted to keep the name of Officers’ Wives Club.”
He says one of his goals here has been to make it easier for men to join the spouses’ club.
“I am trying to get people thinking the spouses’ club is not just for women. There is a changing demographic in all military branches. It has gone from mostly men serving on active duty to a lot of women, and now some same-sex couples.”
He says a change he has instituted here, of which he is especially proud, has been to make the wife of the Command Master Chief (the senior enlisted person) an honorary co-president of the spouses’ club. Before, the top honorary leadership of the club had been only the admiral’s spouse.
While here, he has also served on the board of the Armed Services YMCA and as the historian of the Rotary Club of Honolulu. Last month, he and other Rotary Club members spent their own money to travel to Cambodia to build a junior high school in a town near Angkor Wat.
In June, Cari and Gary Thomas will be leaving Hawaii for Washington, D.C., where she will be the Coast Guard’s Assistant Commandant for Human Resources, in charge of personnel matters for the 89,000-member Coast Guard.
In Washington, Gary has been nominated to serve as chairman of the National Council of Coast Guard Spouses’ Clubs.
He says a valuable concept he will take with him from Hawaii to their new post is the spirit of ohana.
“I had heard about ohana before I came here but I didn’t get it until I saw it embodied. It is one of the greatest lessons I have learned in Hawaii, that support should extend beyond just mother and father and daughters and sons, but to kupuna and well beyond — that there must be respect, honor and reverence paid to history.
“The spirit of Ohana does not solve everything, but a willingness to live in that spirit goes a long way.”
And as for Diamond Head Lighthouse, they will probably never live in another house as beautifully situated.
“I will miss the sight, sound and smell of the water, the ocean. I can sit here and look out at the ocean and admire it no matter how stormy the weather conditions. It is majestic.”