Two ships passing in the night

February 06, 2018

The Hiigels, pictured in their drill uniforms, during their senior year at the Coast Guard Academy. Photo courtesy of Mark and Joanna Hiigel.

Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Emaia Rise

A thunderous cheer from the class of 1995 announced the completion of four years meant to educate and prepare students for the challenges of life, but nothing could have prepared Mark Hiigel and Joanna Beste for the challenges that come with being married to another service member.

The couple started dating during their senior year and after graduation, Mark and Joanna received orders to neighboring states. With their love holding steady, they married six months later. A day that most young brides would agonize over was planned by their parents, with less than two weeks for the ceremony and honeymoon between deployments.

“It was nice not to stress about the details,” said Joanna with a laugh.

Mark and Joanna, circa 2000, during Mark’s first tour at Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles. Photo courtesy of Mark and Joanna Hiigel.

Living 230 miles apart, the newlyweds saw each other one or two days a month for the first two years —Mark on the Coast Guard Cutter Steadfast in Astoria, Oregon, and Joanna on the Coast Guard Cutter Active in Port Angeles, Washington.

It was a time where they seemed to be “two ships passing in the night,” she said, noting how they waited for their vessels’ in-port schedules to line up for a chance to spend time together. They made the effort to stay in touch, albeit without the modern conveniences of smart phones.

The first five years of a relationship can be the most difficult to weather without consistency. Statistics show that dual-military marriages that see long deployments, care-giving challenges, or a lack of a community support, more often end in divorce.

Even though Joanna and Mark’s relationship seemed to face an uphill climb, their dedication to each other kept them on track. Their love for each other competed only with their love of service.

“I truly love what I do,” said Mark, who came from a military family.

He spent summers along the Oregon coast watching Coast Guard helicopters and boats patrol the air and sea without realizing that, years later, he would be in the pilot’s seat.

While her husband attended flight school in Pensacola, Florida, Joanna received orders as the officer-in-charge of a Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment Team (LEDET) out of Mobile, Alabama. Commanding a LEDET was a bit intimidating, but from this vulnerability, strength emerged, fueling Joanna’s diligence and success.

“It was not uncommon to be the only woman onboard a U.S. or Dutch naval ship with four or five hundred men,” Joanna said. “I was in charge of a team of six big, burly men. It was a defining moment when I realized they had my back as I had theirs. We all had our role, and with a supportive team, we learned that we can accomplish difficult tasks.”

Mark said that they always seemed to be commuting in opposite directions, living somewhere between distant units. After 18 grueling months of long commutes, endless hours studying, and almost daily evaluations, Mark completed flight school and immediately left for Air Station Port Angeles on the west coast. Once again the couple became “geo-bachelors” until Joanna transferred to Seattle, three hours away.
The couple was thrilled to be together again, but shortly before the five-year mark of fulfilling their obligation to the Coast Guard, the Hiigels were faced with a decision. With news that they were expecting their first child, Joanna made the bittersweet transition into the Coast Guard Reserve as her husband “spread his wings” as a Coast Guard aviator. She missed active duty, but she opened her arms to embrace the role of motherhood.

Joanna said even though being a service member gave her more insight than most military spouses, transitioning to the Reserve presented challenges. The mission, lingo and even administrative procedures of the Reserve were much different. She had to recalibrate her thought process and how she interacted with her fellow service members and their families. Relating to spouses the majority of the time was, at first, uncomfortable, but it presented an opportunity to become a liaison between the military and dependent world. Joanna helped explain the intricate ins and outs of the service to family members, like what a “good” year is, or what educational and work life resources were available to military members and their families.

“These stripes on my shoulders, I use them to remove stumbling blocks that are placed in the path of others,” said Joanna. “That is how I see my role as a leader in the Coast Guard.”

The decision to continue her career in the Reserve has not come without personal sacrifice. Deployments and military obligations inevitably resulted in missed precious moments in her children’s lives. One key element that allowed the Hiigels to deploy and continue their Coast Guard service was a strong support system. The silver lining of their sacrifice became their children’s grandparents’ advantage, nurturing a very special and indestructible bond between generations.

“At the drop of a hat, grandma and grandpa have always been willing to fill in,” said Mark.

“They travel to us, they take over the role of full-time parents,” Joanna said. “Instead of going on vacations, their time off work is spent getting the kids off to school and making sure they eat dinner.”

An act of kindness that began two decades ago, continues to this day.

“It’s a win-win situation for everyone, and all credit goes to my in-laws,” said Joanna. Mark remembered many great friends and neighbors who lent a hand with everyday routines and family responsibilities.

“The old adage ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ has rung true for our family over the years,” said Mark.

Now, with half a century of Coast Guard experience between them, they’ve returned to the Northwest where they began as young ensigns. Promoted to captain within a month of each other, the Hiigels have taken senior roles in the Coast Guard. Mark returned for a second tour at Air Station Port Angeles as the commanding officer, and Joanna is attached to the Pacific Area command as a liaison within the Pacific Outreach-Joint Interagency Coordination Group.

“I have been truly blessed by my association with the Coast Guard,” said Mark.

Joanna agrees. “Thanks to the Reserve, I have the best of both worlds,” she said. “I’m grateful that I did not give up my commission because I would have missed my association with the Coast Guard.”

Through the years they’ve learned how to trust, support and encourage each other even when the duty phone rings, again, in the middle of dinner.

“I believe you have to be supportive and understanding,” said Joanna. “It’s the secret to our successful careers and family.”

The Hiigels make a point to unplug and remove themselves from the grid; they like to be in nature, hiking or camping. Joanna said with all of the added responsibility and family obligations, they realize time is precious, and they ensure that the time spent together strengthens their relationship.

The love of country, love of Coast Guard, and love of family have kept these two ships sailing strong through a 23-year relationship, including more than 15 Coast Guard units and raising three daughters. They continue to safely navigate though the sea of life, bringing with them the next generation as their daughters embark on their own voyages — possibly even following their parents through the halls of the Coast Guard Academy.

Joanna and Mark Hiigel celebrate her July promotion to the rank of captain, along with Mark’s parents, Ken and Bunnie Hiigel, and their three daughters, Tana, 17, Ellie (in uniform), 15, and Kendra, 10. Mark’s promotion, also held at Air Station Port Angeles, Wash., followed one month later. Photo courtesy of the Hiigel family.



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