A month ago in the seaport city of New London, Connecticut, the sun glinted off Becca Cotton’s white dress uniform as she walked across the stage to receive her Coast Guard commission from President Donald Trump. She was then assigned to a cutter with a name that reflected her journey as the lone active female Latter-day Saint at the military academy: Valiant.
Graduating from the United States Coast Guard Academy had been no small feat for Cotton, who grew up in the remote town of Glenrock, Wyoming.
“It was very surreal,” Cotton said. “For me, it’s been six years.”
Most cadets graduate in four years, but Cotton isn’t like most graduates. The only active female member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the academy, Cotton took an 18-month sabbatical to serve a mission in Hong Kong. She returned, graduated three weeks ago, and is now being assigned to labor a different kind of mission: a Coast Guard tour with a white hull cutter — a drug and migrant interdiction boat — in Jacksonville, Florida.
When she graduated from high school, Cotton didn’t immediately think of a military career as an option for herself, although both her parents had served. She had good grades in all of her subjects, but none of them jumped out at her as something she really loved.
She did know that she didn’t want an office job. She wanted to serve the community and get out of the tiny Wyoming town she grew up in.
“I loved it, but I wanted to do bigger things,” Cotton said. “And I believe that if you want to do something big, then God will help you do it, if you do the work.”
But as Cotton applied and was accepted to the Coast Guard Academy, she didn’t know she would be the only active LDS woman there. As such, sometimes the academy’s environment was less than friendly for her.
“I would say the biggest challenge was just keeping the Spirit with me. Sometimes it was hard because it’s a military environment, so people swear, a lot of people drink and smoke,” Cotton said. “It was hard sometimes because you’re surrounded by that stuff … but you get over that and you learn that people that live differently than you, they’re not bad people.”
Cotton did have some male LDS friends, including her friend Matthew Naylor, who also left to serve a mission, his in Japan, and then returned to the academy.
Even though some of her friends were going, Cotton didn’t think she could go on a mission herself because most of the cadets who had left for missions had done so after their sophomore year at the academy, streamlining their honorable discharge paperwork with their semesters and mission calls. “I was already a junior and I didn’t see it in my plan at all,” Cotton said.
She also thought that she was serving a mission, in a sense, by being the only active LDS female at the academy, so it came as a shock when the prompting came to serve a mission. Cotton remembers she was sitting in a stake conference, listening to a talk about missionary work when the prompting came.
Following the meeting, Cotton ran to find her bishop and explained the things she felt.
“He said, ‘I got a really strong feeling just now … and I think you should come in for a bishop’s blessing.’ And so the next week, I did,” Cotton said. “And he gave me a bishop’s blessing and it said, very clearly, ‘The Lord wants you to serve a mission.’”
In order to do so, she had to completely separate from the military. Upon her return, she had to reapply, re-enroll and repeat a semester of school.
She received her mission call to the China Hong Kong mission.
“As soon as I got my call, I knew it was the right choice, and I was excited for it,” Cotton said. She didn’t know at the time of her call how much her mission would affect her military career, and vice versa.
She started noticing early on in her mission that she was far removed from the demanding academic environment she was doing so well in.
“There’s a joke in the Hong Kong Mission that they send all the perfectionists there, of which I definitely am one, because there is absolutely no way that you can do a mission in Hong Kong and not make a fool of yourself,” Cotton said. “And I was used to being perfect in my little perfect world, and it was just really hard for me to get used to looking stupid. … I think I definitely needed that stretch.”
Cotton struggled with the language and the culture throughout her mission in Hong Kong. “I know all missions are hard, but it was really hard sometimes,” Cotton said. “We can’t go knocking door to door, so most of all of our proselyting was just on the streets and we would just talk to people and a lot of them did not really want to talk to us.”
Throughout her mission, Cotton said she had to wholly rely on Christ, not only to get through it but also to become better because of it.
“There were times where I definitely felt that I couldn’t talk to one more person or be rejected by one more person but you just pray for help and something gets you through it,” Cotton said. “I’ve definitely felt like I was sustained by Jesus Christ that whole time.”
But because of her time at the military academy, one thing was easier for Cotton: obedience.
“I’m not going to say I was perfect at obedience, it was of course a struggle all the time, but that was something I always strove for,” she said. “I think being at the academy and always having to follow arbitrary rules helped me not question like ‘Why do we have to do this?’”
In turn, the spiritual skills she learned on her mission would come in handy as she returned to the academy to repeat her junior year and continue on to graduation.
Some things that she learned on her mission will also help her in her position as a deck watch officer aboard the 210-foot white hull cutter, the USCGC Valiant.
“I gained so much in the way of trusting God, and learning to put my faith first,” she said. “Just to think about others and lose myself serving … just learning how to really listen to the Spirit and what it sounds like when he’s telling you to do something.”
Now, Ensign Becca Cotton is starting her tour in Florida. As she reflects on her mission, schooling and graduation, she said, “There’s so many awesome things that we could do in this life, if we want to, if we just have the courage to seek them out, and do them.
“Also, going off of that, I strongly believe that God has a plan for every person, like a special niche where they fit, and if you just trust he will guide you around to all those things that he wants you to do, and it all fits into his plan.”