By Brandon Kurzawski
Maria Bardakos knows her life’s work connects directly to her service in the U.S. Coast Guard. It taught her, she said, to work hard and always to be organized, and Bardakos helped create a special force at her base that still remains.
Her service also confirmed her decision to seek a career in health care, although her main reason for joining was a practical one: She needed health insurance.
So when she was 20, Bardakos, enlisted in the Coast Guard. Originally, adults were not allowed to stay on their parent’s insurance unless they were studying full time in college, Bardakos, now 56, said. While driving down McKnight Road one day, Shaler native Bardakos noticed a sign for Coast Guard recruitment. Joining it was not something she expected to do with her life.
“The next thing I knew, I was signing up,” Bardakos said.
On Oct. 9, 2001, Bardakos was sent off to Cape May, New Jersey, to complete boot camp. It was her first time being away from home for a long period of time. When she arrived, she described it as an unforgettable experience.
“You get there and your whole world is completely rocked by being thrown into something that you’ve never experienced. Nobody can ever prepare you for that first day,” Bardakos said.
At boot camp, her world was completely different.
“They’re always yelling at you, and you’re always doing push-ups or doing something because somebody, probably me, was not marching correctly,” she said.
Bardakos found shooting to be the most challenging thing she faced at boot camp. While she was not comfortable shooting a gun, it was required for everyone in order to be on the boarding team.
“We had two or three range days, and most of us had never had a live firearm in our hands before,” she said. “I remember my entire body shaking. Out of the 20 or 25 rounds we were supposed to shoot, I put maybe three on the target. I was crying and shaking,” she said.
As a Greek Orthodox, her faith was a way of escaping during a difficult time.
“I was allowed to go off base every week and attend church services, which gave me the chance to get away from it every week. The response that I got just walking into the church – Everybody was just so proud to have me there,” Bardakos said.
When she finished boot camp, Bardakos went home for a few months before being deployed to the Erie Coast Guard station. After experiencing the boot camp military world, it felt weird being home at first.
“The biggest adjustment was not being watched all the time,” she said. “Coming home was weird just because I was so used to having to watch everything. You didn’t speak unless you were spoken to if you were outside of the barracks.”
After serving in Erie, Bardakos was sent to Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, to serve on the Maritime Safety and Security Team. Her unit ended up combining the tactical response team that created the Coast Guard’s first special force unit called the Maritime Security Response Team.
The MSRT now serves as first responders to domestic terrorism, both on land and overseas.
In May 2006, the team was commissioned. Bardakos returned to Chesapeake Bay 10 years later to see where the unit was.
“To see them doing the things that we thought were an absolute cluster, we were just flying by the seat of our pants,” Bardakos said. “Seeing the current members using the things that we wrote procedures for and tried out made me realize it worked.”
Bardakos also spent some time sailing the seas on patrol boats. While she patrolled the seas, she served in various roles such as navigating boats, assisting as a medic and even shooting as a gunner. The sea may seem scary to some, but it was relaxing for her to be a part of.
“It was very calming and peaceful when you weren’t thinking about why you were there and what you were doing,” she said. “We knew the kind of danger that we were in, but we were all there together. We all looked out for each other, so it made it incredibly less stressful.”
On Oct. 8, 2006, Bardakos retired from the military after serving for five years.
After leaving the military, she furthered her schooling by going to paramedic school. Once she graduated from school, she worked at many local EMS stations around Pittsburgh, which led her to Shaler-Hampton EMS. While she was working there, Bardakos attended nursing school to further her medical education. In 2021, she graduated from the University of Pittsburgh.
Currently, she works for the Pittsburgh VA Medical Center in Oakland as a medical-surgical nurse. Everyone still calls it this. Even though she works there full time, she occasionally picks up shifts at Shaler-Hampton EMS.
“It’s ingrained in my blood. I don’t think I can ever fully give it up,” Bardakos said.
As a nurse at the Oakland VA hospital, Bardakos finds her experience in the military has helped her connect with the veterans she works with. Along with her scrubs, she’ll wear Coast Guard T-shirts to associate herself with the military.
“Even though they were a Marine, in the Air Force or the Army, it doesn’t matter. We all went through boot camp. It always seems to make them relax just a little bit knowing I’m a veteran too,” Bardakos said.
While the military was right for her, so much has changed from her time serving as a 20-year-old. Now a mother to her 15-year-old daughter, the difference between generations has been noticeable to Bardakos.
“The military was right for me, but it’s not right for everybody. It’s a whole mindset that I’m seeing now,” she said. [The new generation] doesn’t want to be told what to do. They want to have their voice, and they want to do things their own way, which is respectable, but it’s difficult sometimes to even just give advice,” Bardakos said. Also all good. Nice transition up to this.
There has been one thing that was taught to Bardakos through her time in the Coast Guard: constant organization. It has always followed her throughout the years following the time she served. I would adjust this a bit, just because I used it differently in your lead: The constant organization the Coast Guard engrained in her has followed her in the years that have followed the end of her service.
“It’s a part of me now. I’m capable of having a day where I have nothing planned, but if I’m doing something, I want it to be planned,” she said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without that structure. They taught me how to be an adult.”
Learn more about Bardakos and watch the interview here.