Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Jason Vanderhaden,...

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Jason Vanderhaden, right, and his daughter, Victoria Vanderhaden, who is also in the Coast Guard. She's stationed at Eaton's Neck in Huntington. Credit: Senior Chief Chris Mullins/U.S. Coast Guard

Victoria Vanderhaden can't remember a time when boats and water weren't part of her life.

When she was 3 years old, she rode down the Missouri River with her dad. Jason Vanderhaden was in the Coast Guard and he propped her up to steer the boat. The little girl reached up and grabbed the big wheel. And she wouldn't let go.

At that moment, Jason Vanderhaden said he envisioned, in a way only a father can, his daughter all grown up, following his footsteps into the Coast Guard and commanding her own boat.

These days, the 22-year-old woman is a petty officer 3rd-class in charge of two boats doing search and rescue at the Coast Guard station in Eatons Neck in Huntington.

She recently re-enlisted in the Coast Guard. Her father, now the nation's highest ranking enlisted member of the guard, administered the oath in a small ceremony with a few friends and family.

"She just amazes me, how dedicated she is," said Jason Vanderhaden, 48. "She's fulfilling my dream for her."

Victoria Vanderhaden couldn't see it any other way, having the dad and the upbringing she did. She remembers her father teaching her to swim and drive a boat. She's been swimming since she could walk. 

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Jason Vanderhaden,...

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Jason Vanderhaden, right, reads the re-enlistment oath to his daughter VIctoria, who is stationed at Eatons Neck in Huntington.   Credit: Station Eaton’s Neck/U.S. Coast Guard

"He's my hero, for sure," she said. "I was born into the Coast Guard."

Her father said he didn't push his two children into the service, that he wanted them to make their own choices. But his kids took to the Coast Guard life. His son, Tyler, 25, serves in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Growing up and moving around the country, Victoria became her father's sidekick, accompanying him as he inspected and spoke to Coast Guard units. She listened intently as he instilled in them the values of the service: Honor, respect and devotion to duty.

Victoria was already learning those lessons at home. She had to keep her room neat and clean. She had to make her own bed every morning. She had to do her chores, such as mowing the lawn. And on their family boat, he taught her the "rules of the road" on the water: don't create a wake, wear a life jacket, watch for buoys.

Her greatest lesson in responsibility, she said, came when her parents gave her a dog when she was 13 — a white lab she named Nalu. She has Nalu to this day.

Ten days after graduating high school in California in 2015, Victoria was off to the Coast Guard boot camp. Her father, knowing how tough it would be, offered some simple advice: Don't quit.

During boot camp, Victoria learned that carrying her father's name didn't make things easier.

"A lot of people knew who Dad was, and they gave me a hard time," she said. When she made a mistake, "They would say you're not worthy of that name (tag). They threatened to take it off."

That made her work harder. 

"I've only seen my Dad cry twice," Victoria recalled. "One was when we had to put a dog down. And the other was when I graduated from boot camp."

Victoria has served on Long Island for three of her four years in the service. She is a boatswain's mate in charge of a 45-foot and a 29-foot rescue vessel. Search and rescue can be demanding physically and emotionally, and she's had to learn to handle the extremes of the work.

She recalled the man who died kayaking two years ago off Port Jefferson. She led the team that recovered his body. Then there was the dozen young women from a college lacrosse team, stranded in a boat off Lloyd's Neck Point in a nor'easter last year. The roiling waters and blasting winds made it hard but the rescue was a success.

Last July, she rescued two men swimming off the coast of Fire Island. The waves must have been 6 feet tall and darkness was coming on. Still, she dove in. 

"I was kind of in shock afterward," she said. "I cried."

Ever since she was a little girl, Victoria said she has tried to emulate her father. 

"He leads from the front," she said. "He can talk to anybody and make them feel like they are the only person who matters."

Her father, in turn, sees his daughter showing top-notch leadership skills.

"She's not afraid to take charge," he said. 

Jason Vanderhaden, who lives in Washington, D.C., was appointed Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard in 2018. His job is to address the issues of enlisted personnel to the highest levels in the Coast Guard. He is essentially the voice of all 34,000 enlisted members of the service, including his daughter.

He recently testified before Congress on the Coast Guard budget.

But on April 15, the master chief was standing on the beach at Eatons Point, reading the re-enlistment oath to his daughter before an intimate group of family and friends.

This Father's Day, he reflected on that moment.

"I couldn't be more proud," said Jason Vanderhaden. "I think of myself as successful because of her success."

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