That Lt. (j.g.) La’Shanda Holmes had those traits was never in doubt. The humble, soft-spoken young woman had faced trials growing up in North Carolina that tested and tempered her desire to excel. When she walked across the stage April 9th to receive her wings as the first African-American female helicopter pilot in the U.S. Coast Guard, it was simply the next chapter of a proud story.
“I knew she would be successful. She had already overcome far greater challenges than flight school. I had the opportunity to do a familiarization flight with her, and where most folks might get a little frustrated, she drank it all in. She was eager to improve and I had no doubts she would do well,” Commander Mark Murray said.
Given her childhood, that might not normally be a safe assumption, but for Holmes, the hurdles she faced growing up drove her to try all that much harder.
“I was used to people telling me what I couldn’t do. We moved around a lot, and I think it fueled my ambition to live better and work harder. It just gave me more motivation to succeed,” she said.
Her trials started young. Holmes was just two when her mother committed suicide. She was adopted a short time later, but after her adoptive mother remarried, she states that she and her younger brother were placed in foster care due to abuse and were separated. She went through several homes until she landed with Linda and Edward Brown at 17. She still calls them her parents and they provided some necessary stability for her life.
Her hard work paid off even then graduating magna cum laude from high school and earning admission to Spelman College. Two years into her education there, she was assisting with a community service booth during a career day. Directly across from her was a Coast Guard recruiting booth. She wandered over after the event to speak with him conversation with Senior Chief Dexter Lindsey who inspired her to think about serving.
She applied for and was accepted into the College Student Pre-commissioning Initiative which financially enabled her to finish school. Prior to attending Officer Candidate School, she served on a Coast Guard cutter as an officer candidate and while near the bridge stuck up a conversation with the operations officer who advised her to consider aviation. It was then that she learned the Coast Guard had only one other black, female pilot, Lt. Jeanine Menze.
“It sounded challenging, but something I was up for,” Holmes said.
She recalls her first flight, “We did hovering and flying low over the water. I was like a little kid. It was like nothing I had ever done or seen before. It was awesome,” she said. “Everyone in the aviation community was so close. There was a real sense of camaraderie that I wanted to be a part of. ”
Holmes says things haven’t really hit home with her yet. For that day, she was just one of 18 new aviators. At her next duty station, she wants to be just another rookie pilot. She knows she is breaking a barrier, but doesn’t seem to think it really says anything special about her. She is transferring to Coast Guard Air Station Los Angeles and wants the same things any young officer wants.
“I know I’m the first, but nothing has sunk in yet. People may have expectations, but for me, mainly, it is about taking on responsibility and knowing I have something to prove [as a pilot]. I just want to keep flying well and working hard to make my community, family and sisters proud of me.”