Auntie Annie of the Coast Guard
The head of the civilian component of the Coast Guard, Annie Leighton goes above and beyond the call of duty to make young ‘Coasties’ feel at home on Kaua’i
It’s pretty much common knowledge that military boot camp is tough. But Kaua’i Flotilla Commander and Ombudsman “Auntie Annie” Leighton, as she is known down at the Coast Guard station, was surprised by just how hard it was and didn’t take too kindly to the training she attended back in 1980.
“I was a college graduate, was 25, and I couldn’t handle the boot camp,” she says. “It’s tough, and I couldn’t hack it.”
Leighton says she was in the Coast Guard a mere 17 days before calling it quits.
“It was extremely challenging on all levels: physical, emotional and spiritual,” she says. “Basic training is designed to create team members who are capable of carrying out the mission of the Coast Guard and, as many billets are aboard ships or small boats, it’s imperative that all crew members work together without hesitation. Each crew member needs to be able to unconditionally depend on his or her shipmates to perform their duties to the best of their ability.
“But it left me with a really high regard for the Coast Guard,” she adds.
It also helped prepare her for her current role as ombudsman and flotilla commander, a volunteer post and elected position, respectively. Leighton was elected commander more than a year ago. Her roles are part of the auxiliary, the uniformed volunteer civilian branch of the Coast Guard. The jobs include helping those who have been transferred to Kaua’i get situated, settled in and set up, though Leighton’s colleagues and fellow “Coasties” say she goes above and beyond.
“Annie goes out of her way to help the people who serve our entire island community and thus, her service benefits us all,” Auxiliary Flotilla Staff Officer Larry Richardson says.
Leighton does a lot of behindthe-scenes, figurative heavy lifting, Richardson says, including monitoring marine radio frequencies and communications, and helping conduct safety patrols and search-and-rescue missions.
A typical shift involves relieving the watchstander, updating logs, maintaining boats and, for Leighton, working to ensure Coasties feel at home. Though she’s technically a leader (she is in charge of the entire Coast Guard Auxiliary on Kaua’i), Leighton says she’s happiest simply “being there for the Coasties” at the station, made up mostly of “kids” who are 20and 30-somethings.
“Really anyone under 40 kids, compared to me. I’m 56, and I love my gray hairs,” she says.
Known as the Coasties’ “Court Jester,” Leighton says her primary job is to help them keep smiling.
“I think it’s just the sense that someone cares for them and about them, and I tell them that if they get half of what I get out of being ‘Auntie Annie,’ we’re all doing great,” she says.
A second mom of sorts, Leighton accomplishes that not only by bringing in home-cooked meals, but also by relieving officers on duty, something she made the effort to train for because of how hard Coast Guardsmen work.
“The fact that she has been trained to monitor marine radio frequencies and communications frees up active-duty personnel,” Richardson says.
As for the home-cooked meals, that’s not part of the job description, but something Leighton does to make the station a home away from home. Despite being a vegan, she brings the crew homemade meals that have ranged from beef stew to shoyu chicken to enchilada casserole.
“I don’t do meat,” she says, laughing as crew members tease her, saying, “Auntie, you don’t eat this stuff, but you sure can cook ’em.”
Working to assuage homesickness is something Leighton is inspired to do, thanks in part to that notorious experience as a born-and-raised Kaua’i resident sent to a chilly New Jersey for boot camp.
“Knowing the fear of being put into a totally different place when you’re young is something I understand,” she says.
Dubbing the Coasties her second family, it’s a relationship that’s mutually beneficial, as Leighton’s parents, Edward and Barbara Broadbent, both passed away within the past year at the ages of 86 and 88. Leighton says her father died of a broken heart.
“Who wants to be the surviving spouse, right?” she says.
Though Leighton doesn’t have any remaining blood relatives on the island, she’s part of a legacy that dates back more than a century and draws upon her local knowledge to help young Mainland Coasties with the cultural adjustment of living on Kaua’i.
Her great-grandfather, Edward Henry Walton Broadbent, emigrated to Kaua’i from New Zealand as a blacksmith by trade and taught at Malu Malu vocational school before managing Grove Farm in 1891. Her grandfather, Frank Broadbent, was born on Kaua’i but moved to Maui, where he was manager of a sugar plantation.
“I don’t have kids, and (this job) kind of fulfills that role,” says Leighton. “Of course, I go home at night. They’re self-reliant, but I try to show them the ropes.”
A small-business owner for most of her adult life she ran Two-Wheels motorcycle shop (now Garden Island Motor Sports) until 2000 Leighton didn’t know to what extent she’d be helping transition young crew members stationed on Kaua’i when she started volunteering at the station six years ago. But once there, she sort of fell into it naturally, she says. “It was like my experience from 30 years prior dovetailed into this.”
Part mama bear, part guide, Leighton says that everyone in the auxiliary finds their own niche.
“Mine is being down at the station with the active-duty Coast Guard, who are mostly young and from the Mainland, and who are maybe dealing with being away from home or family for the first time,” she says.
She feels honored to be able to volunteer and help take a bit off others’ plates.
“I love my Coasties, and everything they stand for environmental law, fisheries law enforcement, ocean mammal protection,” she says. “So I like to do anything I can to help.”
Richardson says it’s that kind of attitude that earns esteem from activeduty personnel.
“That’s why she is very loved and respected by the Coast Guard personnel for all her service,” he says. “A fact that is reflected in her nickname, ‘Auntie Annie.'”
The volunteer post does allow Leighton plenty of time to nurture her other passions, including standup paddling and biking. “I’m a water person, a bicycle person, a rather strange person,” she says.
But above all, she loves her time at the station. “They’re very bright and I just really enjoy being Auntie Annie,” she says. “I know the island fairly well, and I just hope I’m able to make their transition here a little more fun.”