Capt. Zeita Merchant, commander of The Port of New York, will make history in April when she attains the rank of rear admiral, becoming the highest-ranking African American woman in the U.S. Coast Guard’s (USGC) 233-year history.
After a lengthy confirmation process, Merchant was approved in December 2023 by Congress and will assume the rank during the Coast Guard’s Change of Command exercises in April. At that time, she will assume a new position in USCG Headquarters in Washington, D.C
At the USCG Sector One, based in Rosebank, Merchant is commander of one of the nation’s busiest port complexes, managing more than 1,000 personnel in 12 commands daily over an area spanning more than 6,000 square miles. She and her staff are tasked with keeping the waters of New York and New Jersey safe daily for both travelers and hundreds of billions of dollars in cargo.
Calling the USCG a close-knit family, Merchant thanked her superior officers along the way, praising the “climate for success” fostered in the nation’s only military branch in the Department of Homeland Security.
She said working in New York City has been the “assignment of a lifetime,” one she could never have envisioned herself in as a young college kid from the South, who admittedly joined the Coast Guard solely for college debt assistance.
“When I joined, I was focused on the three-year obligation, and even that was hard to swallow,” she says with a laugh, recalling how she then quickly recognized the impact she could have on the nation’s homeland defense every day — and all that changed.
“Those years went by so fast, and the impact I was making (with) my unit was one that I wanted to continue to experience,” she recalled. “I remember having the conversation . . . ‘What do I have to do to stay in?’ “
Today, she’s considered one of the USCG’s top certified emergency managers leading large-scale, multi-jurisdictional incident responses.
Merchant has quickly ascended the USCG ranks during her nearly 27-year career. She also continued her education and earned a great many commendations — while tearing through color and gender barriers along the way.
In most of her leadership roles in the USCG she’s either been the first minority or the first woman to hold the position — and most times she was both.
Merchant quickly praises the many who have understood her vision during her career.
“At any point there could have been a barrier, but I was truly blessed to have people that supported me and gave me a climate in which I could bring my best self to work every day,” she said. “That’s my goal: to give others the same environment.”
Her promotion, she hopes, will shine a light on the Coast Guard for young African American women who are unfamiliar with it, as she was while growing up in Mississippi.
“People on the outside then get to consider the Coast Guard because they see someone that looks like them . . . and are, in turn, inspired by it,’ she said. “That is what I see. I’m giving them something that I didn’t have.”
Her current position is also historic for the Coast Guard, as she’s the first-ever minority to hold the position of captain of the Port of New York.
A graduate of Tougaloo College, Merchant holds a master’s degree in public administration from The George Washington University and both a master’s degree and a doctorate from the former National Graduate School at New England Institute of Business.
She’s also graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Executive Education Leadership in Homeland Security Course, and is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Seminar XXI National Security and Foreign Affairs Fellow.
During her career, she’s commanded maritime operations at Marine Safety Unit Chicago, served as executive officer of Marine Safety Unit Texas City, chief of port operations at Sector Miami and as a marine inspector and port operations officer at the Marine Safety Office in New Orleans.
She’s also received personal military honors, including three Meritorious Service Medals, six Coast Guard Commendation Medals, three Coast Guard Achievement Medals, three Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medals and four Commandant’s Letters of Commendation, among others.
And Merchant was recently named a Hero of the Harbor by the non-profit Waterfront Alliance, which celebrates the importance of coastline decision makers. She also was honored as a Woman Who Moves the Nation by the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials for her contributions to the nation’s transportation industry.
As she eyes the next chapter of her career, her fourth move to the nation’s capital, Merchant is enthusiastic.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to serve at the senior executive level for the Coast Guard, really making a difference,” she said. “It really is a pinnacle for me.”
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