One of the most exciting things to see during Novato’s Fourth of July Parade is not on Grant Avenue, but in the skies overhead. The flyover by the Coast Guard’s bright red helicopter is loud, dramatic and gives us a sense of pride in our military and our country.
But while the fleeting demonstration is great for the Coast Guard’s image, it's the day-to-day contributions that Coast Guard members and their families make to Novato that are really something to cheer.
Some newer Novatans may not realize it, but there is still a U.S. military presence in Hamilton. The Coast Guard’s highly trained Pacific Strike Team is based in Hangar 2. Also, several dozen active Coast Guard members and their families live in the Spanish-style military housing enclave at the southern end of the former air force base.
Though it’s generally a transient population — many Coast Guard families move every two or three years — it’s common for Coast Guardsmen and their spouses to jump with both feet into the greater Novato community, making the most of the time they are here.
One such person is Lt. Brad Burness. He and his wife, Jacquelyn, and their two children have lived in Novato for six years, which qualifies them as “old timers” in the Hamilton Coast Guard community. During the week, Burness commutes to Coast Guard Island in Alameda where he manages Department of Homeland Security operations throughout California.
Burness also travels for his job. But in between managing counter-terrorism and conducting training, he still makes the time to volunteer in the community.
This past year, Burness served as a den leader for Hamilton Pack 27, his son’s cub scout pack. He led two Tiger Den meetings every month and helped coordinate monthly pack meetings and major events throughout the year.
He’s already signed up to lead second graders in the Wolf Den next year.
In addition to the Cub Scouts, Burness also devotes up to 20 hours a week to youth basketball. He referees Novato parks and recreation games among others in Marin. While he gets paid to officiate, he also helps coach and mentor kids on the side, on his own time.
“I grew up playing basketball, and I’m just giving back what I’ve learned,” he said.
As a transplant to the area, he said it’s important to get out and connect with the greater community.
“So many others have grown up here; they know each other and have a history,” he said. “Unless we get involved, we are somewhat isolated.”
Jolee Woolard agrees. She is the wife of a Coast Guard commander whose family also lives in the military housing in Hamilton.
“We all tend to get involved with the schools and the community in order to make it feel more like home,” she said.
Before moving to Novato, Woolard and her family spent three years in Virginia, and before that it was three years in Alaska. She calls herself lucky to be living in Novato after five years here so far.
The Woolards have three children, all students at . Jolee Woolard has volunteered at the school in many capacities. She’s been a room parent for the past four years, which is a large responsibility in the classroom. She also chaired the school book fair last year.
Besides volunteering, she also substitute teaches at Hamilton school when she can.
“Everyone jumps in to try to help and keep themselves busy,” she said, referring to the Coast Guard families. “You want to feel welcome in the community and make friends.”
Like other Coast Guard families, the Woolards' and the Burnesses' time in Novato may come to an end sooner rather than later. But that is just the nature of their military life.
“It’s tough (to move the kids), but it’s part of the lifestyle,” said Burness. “The flip side is that we get to see other parts of the country.”
But both would agree, they’ll always think fondly of their time in Novato, and we thank them for their service.