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Black History Month: Coast Guard Captain Zeita Merchant Keeps New Yorkers Safe While Blazing New Trails

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- On a Coast Guard boat in New York Harbor, the woman in charge of keeping us safe is also blazing a trail on the water.

CBS2's Maurice DuBois got a chance to hit the water on board a 45-foot response boat with Captain Zeita Merchant, the Coast Guard commander of the Port of New York.

"You know, if this is your office, this isn't that bad," DuBois said.

"Yeah," Merchant said.

The "office" is better known as Sector New York, the largest Coast Guard field command on the East Coast.

"Just to be in this position is just historic for me and historic for the Coast Guard ... Just being the first minority to be the captain of the Port of New York. It's, uh, it's humbling," Merchant said.

Not to mention challenging, hectic and exhilarating.

"There's a lot of intelligence that's coming into this room," Merchant said.

The safety and security demands of the third largest port in the country are relentless.

"To New York being the number one terrorist target ... We have camera systems all across the port," Merchant said.

At one of the nation's most strategically important port complexes, the Coast Guard keeps watch over hundreds of billions of dollars in cargo and tens of millions of passengers each year.

"Eighty percent of goods coming into the Port of New York has to come through this waterway," Merchant said.

"Has cyber risen to the top of the threats that you think that you face right now?" DuBois asked.

"Yes. In 2020, it was reported that cyber threats in the maritime community had increased over 400%," Merchant said.

"Give me a big picture here, the sector of New York," DuBois said.

"Sector New York consists of a little over 900 people and a lot of sub units. Our area responsibility is 11,000 square miles and that consists over 10 million people," Merchant said. "We have stations, stations that are at Sandy Hook, down in New Jersey, all the way up to Kings Point."

"What's the likelihood that a little girl who grows up in Jackson, Mississippi, what's the likelihood that she would end up right here?" DuBois said.

"I would say I would say zero or 1%," Merchant said.

It was a chance meeting with a recruiter at tiny Tougaloo College in Mississippi that changed the course of Merchant's life.

"What'd your family say? You go home and say, 'I'm gonna join the Coast Guard.' How did that go?" DuBois said.

"I knew I was applying for this scholarship program. I was going to get my tuition paid. I was going to have a guaranteed job after college. So at the end of the day, that's really the only thing my mom cared about," Merchant said. "I grew up in Mississippi. I was born in Chicago. It was seven of us in a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago and in a area that was, wasn't the best ... They are my role models. They inspire me every day to continue to make them proud."

READ MORE: Change Of Command Ceremony Installs Zeita Merchant In Charge Of Coast Guard Sector New York

When Merchant began her career in the Coast Guard in 1997, she says there were few role models who looked like her, but there was one standout -- Dr. Olivia Hooker.

"She was the first African-American woman to join the Coast Guard, and that was in World War II ... and I had an opportunity to meet her when I was three, three years in the Coast Guard ... And she stayed a mentor to me all the way up until her death," Merchant said.

The galley at their base on Staten Island is named after Hooker.

As the captain has stood on the shoulders of those who came before her, she says she recognizes her responsibility as a role model to others.

"When young kids, little girls see you, little boys, too, when they see you and the reaction they give you, what's that like?" DuBois asked.

"You know, you can't even put into words the impact that you have and what people see when they see you. And I try always to connect and make time to have conversations with them when I'm out in public," Merchant said.

She was promoted to this top job in May of 2021 at a historic ceremony at the Statue of Liberty.

"To only be the second woman and the first minority to be the captain of the Port of New York ... I'm empowered and inspired by [the Statute of Liberty] every day. It reminds me about where I am and the impact that I can make," Merchant said.

Merchant has multiple degrees and when asked about what comes next, she only said, "You never know." The Coast Guard is run by the Department of Homeland Security in peacetime and the Navy during wartime, so there are plenty of opportunities for her to continue to advance.

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