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Captain Karen Tsiantas: A Navy Officer and a Hellenic American Woman

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Captain Tsiantas in front of her alma mater The College of the Holy Cross

What would is it like to be a Greek American woman working for the US military?  That is the question greekamericangirl.com posed to Captain Karen A. Tsiantas.  With a long career (26 years and counting) in the US Navy, Capt Tsiantas is an unsung hero who has stayed true to her roots.  She has traveled the world and the seven seas many times over, having served in such faraway places as Okinawa, Hawaii, Alaska, as well as the South Pacific.  She has visited in her official capacity Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  She has received training at anti-submarine warfare schools, communications school in Newport, R.I., gaining knowledge in undersea sound surveillance, as well as a graduate of the Naval War College (Master’s Degree in National Security) and the Joint Forces Staff College.  She is also a qualified Joint Specialty Officer.  Although not assigned to submarines or ships, she has spent time onboard submarines as a visitor and was a liaison officer on the USS RANGER, a carrier, during an anti-submarine exercise before women were officially assigned onboard combatant ships.  In addition, she worked at anti-submarine surveillance headquarters and naval stations mentoring civilian and Navy personnel alike, and put her in charge of the operational planning for a large-scale operational plan in the Pacific.  In her blood, she carries the Greek wanderlust for sailing.  She is a remarkable woman who is a pioneer in forging a path in the military, a road less traveled for women, especially Greek women.  Not only has she chosen the road less traveled, she has blazoned it.  Captain Tsiantas unravels the oxymoron “female sailor” and makes it a statement of truth.  Her accomplishments are so worthy and bold they can challenge the boasts of many a proud Greek father for his sailor son.  As a child, her father ensured she learned and could sing the Greek national anthem and to this day she sings it out loud at the Olympic opening ceremonies in her living room.

Captain Tsiantas credits her “wonderful childhood” as the foundation for her life-long success.  She was born to a middle-class family of Greek immigrants in Newburyport, Massachusetts.  Her father came over from Greece after WWII and attended high school in his late 20’s to learn English, then went on to college, and eventually became a math teacher.  Later, he earned his master’s degree at night.  Her mother, from the same village as her father, a small village in the mountains outside of Kozani, emigrated to the US after her father returned to the in 1962 looking for a wife.  Her father saw her in church and that was it-it was arranged.  Her mother was in her early 20s when she came over and her dad immediately placed his bride in a local elementary school to learn English.  He made it a point to Americanize not just her mother but other Greeks in his community.  He spearheaded an effort to have many of the very elderly (70s/80s) women from their local church naturalized as American citizens before they passed away.

Ironically, her father did not agree with her decision to join the armed forces.  She had enrolled in the College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit school that worked in conjunction with the Navy to train officers, and had received a Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship from the Navy to attend the school.  Captain Tsiantas remembers his insisting to go to the bank the week before she graduated and was commissioned to apply for a loan to pay back the Navy for her education.  “He probably wanted me to stay close to home and look for a Greek husband so I could start making grandchildren,” she said jokingly.

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Commissioning Ceremony of CWO1 Joy Craig: Captain Tsiantas with a Marine who worked for her on Okinawa and asked her to accompany her to Quantico to be her commissioning officer when she went from enlisted to officer

However, she stayed true to her original course to serve in the Navy for three good reasons: 1) to service her country and in gratitude for all the great things this country offered her parents; 2) for the sense of adventure a career in the military implied; and 3) as a way to assist her family to pay for college.  As a child Captain Tsiantas had grown up within minutes of the seashore and she remembers spending many summer vacations at the local beaches.  This partly affected her choice in joining the Navy as opposed to the other branches of service.  Additionally, her Nouna’s son, who acted as a big brother for her, had enlisted in the Navy in the late 1970s and she was haunted by his far-away tales of the Philippines.  Through the example of her parents, she learned the importance of service. “Service to country, service to church organizations, service to others,” she credits.  “My parents showed me through their actions the importance of helping others.”

Her first tour of duty began on an isolated island part of the Aleutian chain in Alaska.  When she joined the Navy in 1987 women weren’t allowed to go to sea.  She was assimilated into a shore-based operation where women had already been serving  conducting surveillance using underground cables and arrays, as mentioned in the book, Hunt for Red October.  She does not feel as if she broke ground as a woman in the Navy as she was following the path already prescribed for women at the time.

She was lax in following her Orthodox traditions as a young officer in her 20s in Hawaii as she was “trying to find herself and her place in the world.  “I would choose to run in races on a Sunday morning instead of attending church,” she confesses.   But with time, and especially after getting stationed in Italy and spending her two-week vacations in Greece with family, she started to reconnect to her Hellenic heritage.  “When I was stationed in Italy, I often thought ‘If only I were in Greece.’”  By the time she did her second tour of duty on Hawaii from 2001 to 2005, she had become a born again Greek.  She became active in her church becoming Vice-President of the Philoptochos at the Cathedral of Sts. Constantine and Helen in Honolulu.   Her Philoptochos chapter was instrumental in raising many needed funds, especially to arrange for transport of children affected by cancer and their families from the outer islands to Oahu.  Later, on Okinawa, where there was an Orthodox Chapel, she was appointed as a lay leader for six months while the Chaplain, Fr. Duesenberry, was deployed to Kuwait to work at a mortuary affairs unit.

By growing up with the benefits of a bi-cultural upbringing, Captain Tsiantas gained insights into life.  She remembers in particular the summer of 1971 when her mother took her and her sister to Greece to stay with her parents in Pentalofos, a very small village 1 hour west from Kozani, way up in the mountains.  The village was very small with few amenities.  She remembers her grandmother’s home did not even have indoor plumbing. (She had to use an outhouse for a bathroom and took a bath by heating water in the fire in the kitchen and using a briki to rinse.”)  This experience made her realized all things she took for granted back home, even in her humble rental apartment.  “Upon return I had a deep appreciation for the opportunities my parents had in America,” she explains.

She also remembers how amazed she was at an annual female officer’s convention.  “There were so many young women there—Navy, Marines, Air Force, Cost Guard, enlisted and officers from all services—all rising up in the ranks,” she said.  The notes how many more opportunities there exist for smart, ambitious young women in the military since she joined.  And now with the lifting of the ban on women in combat positions, there will be even more opportunities for advancement.  As long as a woman can uphold the physical and training standards and hold her own against her peers, there should be no limits to what she can accomplish.

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July 1, 2009 at her promotion to CAPTAIN: from left,
RADM Boensel (her boss at the time), Colonel Brad Weisz (her husband), Joanna Tsiantas (her sister), Katerina Connor (niece), Eddie Connor (tall in back/brother-in-law), Alexander Connor (in red/her godson/nephew), EJ Connor (nephew) and YiaYia (Ekaterina Tsiantas, her mom)

At the same time she appreciates American drive and opportunity, Captain Tsiantas still keeps it Greek.  “It is hard to say what am I; more Greek than American or the other way around,” she says.  “I kept my last name as my way to keep my Greek identity, I am not shy to tell my boss (because I am senior, I don’t really need to ask) I am leaving work for a few hours to go to church and I am not shy to tell people my Easter is different.  I like to talk Greek when I can, I follow service in church in Greek as I can still read it; I have a ton of Greek CDs of older music.”

She merits her successes to the fact that she was raised by loving parents who kept their Greek and Orthodox traditions alive and instilled in her solid values.  Those lessons were strengthened by the Jesuits and teachings at College of the Holy Cross; the mottos of Holy Cross still resonate with her: “Service before self” and “Lift the Cross High.” She also attributes her success to the number of mentors she was fortunate enough to have met during her career. Her first was CDR Mary Ann Duff, the second in charge, also called Executive Officer, whose example she tried to emulate when she in turn became executive officer at a small installation in Italy.  Then there was RADM Ronne Froman from 1997-1998, a female flag officer who even came to her wedding in 2001 and Selina Hernandez-Haines from 1989-1991, who was a senior lieutenant and eventually retired as a commander.

Captain Tsiantas did not have the fortune of running into other officers of Hellenic descent.  She does remember in 1998 while stationed on La Maddelena, Italy, a woman from Iraklion, “Penny”, the wife of a service member, who upon hearing that “the new executive officer was Greek,” invited her to her house for Christmas. They have kept in close contact since then.  She remembers watching “a ton of 1950/1960 and 1970s Greek movies” from Penny’s extensive collection and bonding while watching Greek divas such as Aliki Vougiouklali and Jenny Karezi, her mother’s favorites.

After the death of her father in 2005, Captain Tsiantas recalls bonding with her mother.  “We went to St. Anthony’s monastery in Arizona for Pascha,” she recounts, “and being there with my mother in the Greek Orthodox chapel—well, that’s was just sacred.”  Her career also had the added benefit of bringing the wondrous world of travel to her parents who were quite home bodies throughout their lives.  While they were visiting her while she was stationed in Hawaii, she remembers, she “loved coming home every day and hanging out with my parents.” The devotion and respect for the older generation is another very Greek value Captain Tsiantas still keeps close.

Captain Tsiantas would encourage young women with a sense of adventure to eagerly pursue a career in the military.  Of course, the military does present some unique work-life balance issues, especially since tours of duty normally rotate after three years.  For a woman in the Navy, it would not be uncommon to be stationed on a submarine or ship for six to eight months at a time, making it difficult for those who have young children.  But the benefits of travel and the opportunities to serve exist for all those who are brave enough to reach for them.

Captain Tsiantas is currently stationed in Norfolk, Virginia and faithfully continues to attend liturgy at the local Greek church.  She is married to Colonel Brad Weisz, USMC, a native of Edgerton, OH, who is currently serving as the Marine Forces North Chief of Staff in New Orleans.  She and her husband are now living apart, which is not new to them as her husband spent 14 months in Iraq, eight months in Afghanistan, and, right after they were married, he was in Bahrain for 12 months (two different times for six months).

Tsiantas’ personal decorations include the Legion of Merit, Defense Meritorious Service Medal (one oak leaf cluster), Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Navy Commendation Medal (two gold stars), Joint Service Achievement Medal (one oak leaf cluster), Navy Achievement Medal (one gold star) and various unit and campaign awards.

“No matter where I go, I’m Greek and I’m also an American naval officer,” Captain Tsiantas exclaims proudly.