Flying High with Lt. Ronaqua Russell, the First Black Woman to Take Home the Air Medal

February 21st was a big day for Lt. Ronaqua Russell, who was honored with the Air Medal by the Coast Guard, a medal that is awarded to its service members who distinguish themselves by heroic or meritorious achievement in flight. And while this acknowledgement would certainly be an honor for anyone, it’s especially important for Lt. Russell, who is making history as the first African-American female aviator in the Coast Guard to receive the award.

It seems hard to believe that in 2019 there has not yet been an African American woman to achieve this honor. But perhaps when you look at the disappointing statistics it makes a bit more sense. In 2008 the Military Leadership Diversity Commission released a paper entitled “Demographic Profile of the Active-Duty Enlisted Force,” which presented a demographic profile of the active-duty enlisted corps across five military services.

Diversity in the U.S. Coast Guard

Lt. Ronaqua Russell
Photo Credit by CBS Local, a division of CBS Radio Inc

They found that the Coast Guard has the lowest representation of non-Hispanic blacks with senior enlisted ranks, making up only 5.6 percent of all enlisted personnel, and Hispanics represent 5.8 percent of those with senior enlisted ranks. In terms of lower enlisted ranks, non-Hispanic blacks make up 5.7 percent of those enlisted in the Coast Guard, while Hispanics make up 12.5 percent of the same rank. And women make up 12.5 percent of those enlisted in lower ranks of the Coast Guard and 6.3 percent of the higher ranks of the Coast Guard.

Those numbers are clearly a bit outdated, and more recently reports show that in the Coast Guard today women make up 22 percent of the officers and 13 percent of those enlisted. As of 2018, the Coast Guard Academy, the service academy of the United States Coast Guard, enrolled in a class that is 40 percent female, a new high, according to the Associated Press.

The statistics have certainly come a long way since the late 1700s and the days of the United States Revenue Cutter Service (the precursor to the US Coast Guard, which merged with the U.S. Life-Saving Service and was formally renamed in 1915). But the makeup of the Coast Guard still does not accurately reflect the population of the nation it protects and serves. Which is why it is such a big deal when a woman of color in the Coast Guard is awarded such a monumental honor to recognize and celebrate her accomplishments.

Lt. Ronaqua Russell’s Heroic Achievement

Lt. Ronaqua Russell is a hero deserving of much celebration and commendation. The St. Thomas native is currently based out of Coast Guard Air Station Miami, but on August 25th, 2017, she was based out of Corpus Christi when Hurricane Harvey, a devastating Category 4 hurricane, hit the middle Texas coast and left destruction in its wake. Russell’s aircraft was the first in the sky following the storm’s destruction. Despite zero visibility, dangerously strong rain and tropical storm force winds, her team navigating the outer bands of Harvey and landed on partially flooded runways to deliver critical supplies, medical assistance and recovery support to those in need on the ground.

“Leaving Corpus there was not a single aircraft in the sky,” said Russell. “And on our approach into the Houston area there were only a few helicopters. It was eerily quiet.”

They continued doing damage assessment for days and also serving on the ground in the Corpus Christi area. During those weeks of service in Texas, another storm started brewing in the Atlantic, and it was heading right for Russell’s home in the Virgin Islands. A few days later Category 5 Hurricane Irma hit St. Thomas, causing catastrophic damage to the island and several other islands in the Caribbean. After days Russell was able to connect with her family to verify that they were safe, though their home was damaged, but her moment of relief was interrupted by yet another devastating storm, Hurricane Maria, another deadly Category 5 hurricane that devastated Dominica, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.  

Once again, Lt. Russell took to the sky, this time delivering recovery efforts, assisting with evacuations and delivering essential supplies to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the storm.  

For her recovery efforts in all these devastating storms, but particularly for her work after Hurricane Maria, Lt. Ronaqua Russell was honored as the first-ever African American female aviator to receive the Air Medal.

On February 21st, Lt. Russell was honored at the first of two ceremonies to honor her achievement. The ceremony took place at a symbolic location — at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama, where the first African-American aviators in the U.S. armed services broke down racial barriers to earn their wings just 77 years ago. Those women went on to fly heroic and critical combat missions in World War II, and Russell is clearly continuing their legacy by breaking down barriers of her own and inspiring a new generation of women of color.

Russell clearly attributes much of her success to her family, saying that she is a miniature version of her grandmother, who keeps her on her toes. But she has another source of inspiration and drive — a group affectionately called “The Fab 5.” This group is the Coast Guard’s five black female pilots: Lt. Cmdr. Jeanine Menze, Lt. Cmdr. LaShanda Renee Holmes, Lt. C. Angel Hughes, Lt. Chanel Lee and Lt. Ronaqua Russell. These women also had a huge influence on Lt. Russell, having all mentored her and supported her in some way. “We have all been the first at something … And they have all mentored me and helped me get to where I am today,” Russell said.

Appropriately, the Fab 5 were all present at the Tuskegee ceremony.

After receiving the award, Russell spoke of the impact of this honor for her own life, and for future generations. “I’m very fortunate to receive this award. I guess the impact is just other people coming up behind me can look and see a little girl from the Virgin Islands can come and do something like this. If you pursue your passion and give it your all, the sky’s the limit.”