Friday, April 1, 2016

Women Who Inspire: Interview with Michelle La Duca

It's been a while since I've posted an interview with one of my Naval Academy classmates, and I swear, I'm going to try to do better with this. Too many interesting stories out there not to! So without further ado, I'm pleased to introduce one of my active duty classmates, Captain Michelle La Duca!

Michelle La Duca graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Ocean Engineering from the US Naval Academy and was commissioned an Ensign in the Civil Engineer Corps. She  earned a Master of Science in Civil Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, as well as a Doctorate in Industrial Engineering from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. She became the first female commanding officer ever to head a Naval Facilities Engineering Command (FEC), taking the helm at NAVFAC Far East, the command responsible for the Japan, Korea and Singapore regions.  Still on active duty after twenty-six years of service, she has accumulated several notable achievements, including her selection as Naval Facilities Engineering Command Military Engineer of the Year. She has served across the world, including  a six month Individual Augment assignment with the Office of Security Cooperation, Afghanistan in Kabul. She currently serves as Vice Commander of NAVFAC Pacific. Michelle lives in Hawaii with her husband and youngest son and holds the rank of Captain (O-6).

AW: You have had an extraordinary naval career, but it all started at the Naval Academy. Why did you choose Navy?  

ML: I knew I wanted to be in the military from growing up in a military family. I was interested in science and engineering and I knew the Academy was free. And you know how you tend to do things when people say you can’t do them . . . ? I lived in Perry Circle, which is just outside the gate of the Academy when my dad was stationed at the Naval Academy. I told him I wanted to go to Navy, but he said I couldn’t go. This was in ‘72 or ’74, when women still weren’t allowed. So, that inspired me to pursue going. While I was there, good and bad, I felt I had made the right decision. My dad was a ‘62 grad and a marine. Infantry. He retired after 20 years.

AW: Was he supportive of your decision, once you decided to go?

ML: He was very supportive and excited to have the legacy. My mom was very happy and supportive, too. My parents had five kids and always encouraged us. Going to college was just a fact, and they always said they would just figure out a way to pay for it.  

AW: You mentioned that you were always interested in science and engineering. How did you choose which engineering major to pursue once at Navy, and did you know from the beginning that you wanted to enter the Civil Engineer Corps (CEC)?

ML: I chose ocean engineering because it was the closest thing to civil engineering. As far as service selection, back then, most women had to go staff corps because not enough ships were open to women. I was on the crew team—a coxswain—and they had this board up in the crew spaces that listed all the staff jobs, and the Seabees was one of them. It just sounded really interesting.

AW: Your career has taken you all over the world. Did you have a favorite command?

ML: I’d have to say NAVFAC Far East in Japan.  The location was amazing, the people, the job, what I got to see. That command covers Korea, Singapore, and Diego Garcia, in addition to Japan, so I got to see all these places, while observing how we were contributing to the fleet. I had over 2,000 people working for me, and we did a billion dollars in business. It was really the best job in the navy.

AW: And really impressive that you were in charge of all that! And you were the first female to do it! The first female FEC commanding officer. I still find that mind-boggling—that it took until 2013 for this to happen. But anyway, I suspect it wasn’t the first time you were in the position of being “first” or “only.”

ML: True. When I reported to Mobile Naval Construction Battalion THREE [homeported in Port Hueneme, California], where I served as Charlie Company Commander and the S7 Training Officer, it was the first time women had ever been assigned to construction battalions. In NMCB THREE, it was me and one other woman, a chief petty officer, CEC Gagnon.

AW: Two women and how many total in the battalion?

ML: We had about 600-700 total.

AW: How were you received?

ML: Most of the men were very open, but just didn’t know how to work with women. Things like uniform inspections, hair regulations, sea bag requirements. It was a struggle for them, and it was a struggle for us. But as more women came, it got better. There are always a few knuckleheads, but eventually, they just saw us as members of the group, doing our jobs.

AW: You said you were in a “mobile” battalion. What does that mean?

ML: We would deploy for seven months, then return for seven months.  I deployed to Rota, Spain and then to Guam, so a total of fourteen months of deployment in two years.  In Guam, we did field exercises working on military skills like establishing defensive positions and planning and executing convoys.

AW: After this tour, you attended the University of California Berkeley to study for your Masters. Were you working a navy job at the same time or was this pure student life?

Michelle and her husband, Warren
ML: I was a pure student! It was tough, but it was a good break. I had just come back from deployment, but now I could wear civilian clothes and just go to class. No inspections. No captain’s mast. Just a great break. And also a great social experiment. It was night and day different from the Naval Academy!

AW: I can imagine! So speaking of night and day, I’m going to skip from graduate school at Berkeley to your deployment in Afghanistan. I’m curious about your interactions with the Afghan people, particularly the women. Did you meet any while there?

ML: I did and that was a great thing. We delivered supplies to the women’s maternity ward, like donations of clothes and blankets. Only the female members of the military could interact with them, so we’d visit, kiss the babies, things like that. I felt it demonstrated to them that women around the world can do anything or be in any position. They saw we had confidence, had authority. You could see the hope there. Less than forty percent of the women in Kabul were literate. The radicals were trying to keep women uneducated, and schools that took in girls were getting bombed.  Women couldn’t even drive.

AW: How about you? Did you have to drive when you were there?

ML:  I did and it was a strange sight for them. I didn’t get bothered when I was driving. Of course, I was armed, too.  It was an interesting thing, because I realized that in these cultures, people had to figure out a way to mentally handle it. Like in 1994, in Japan, they weren’t used to women in leadership roles. The way they were able to deal with it was that they pretended I was a man. They called me “Sir,” and then they were able to treat me professionally, and no one worried about it. I wish I could have been treated as a female, but this arrangement worked for them, and as a result, I could do my job.

AW: One of the hardest things about this deployment must have been the separation from your son. How did you manage that?

ML: I left for Afghanistan when my son, Sam, was eighteen months old. It was hard because I knew what I had experienced as a kid. My dad came home from Vietnam when I was about the same age as my son, and I had no idea who he was. It took time to rebuild that relationship, so I was definitely worried about that. Deploying today, though, is a lot better because you have the internet, the phones are better, and they have great family programs in place. Like they had one where they would videotape you reading a book and then send the book and the tape home for your kids. There was always a waiting list for that one, but I did it as often as I could. My son is twelve years old now, and he still remembers this.

AW: Did he recognize you when you returned?

ML: Yes! It was like a Hallmark moment! He was two years old, I got off the plane, I was in my desert cammies,  and he recognized me right away. I was balling!

AW: What advice do you give your female junior officers with regard to having a family in the military? I know many women cite “family” as a reason for leaving the service—that it would be too hard to have a family and continue in the service at the same time.
USNA Class of 1989 Reunion, Trey Rhiddlehoover,
Cathy Masar, and Michelle
ML: I remind them that their equivalent job in the civilian world would be that of an executive. They think they’re going to get out of the navy and do a civilian job, like being a lawyer or going into business, or whatever, and they’re going to have all this flexibility. When really, they’re going to be traveling and working long hours, and it’s difficult to get time off—really difficult. You have so many vacation days, sick days. Even in the civil service, you have to earn your leave hours. But with the military, sure they “own” you twenty-four/seven, but they’re actually really flexible because of that. You can do what you need to do. If you need a couple hours off on a Friday night to watch your kid’s play, you can get it. So to the women who say they want a family, and therefore, can’t stay in, I say that it’s always going to be hard. And if you have a working spouse, it’s going to be even tougher. Today, the navy is more flexible and considerate with regard to work/life balance—things like extended maternity leave, pumping rooms, all of that. So I encourage women to stay in.

AW: In the 26 years since we’ve graduated, do you think it’s better now for women? Have we moved forward?

ML: I would say yes, but I would also say the military is still trying to get used to women. A good example is all the uniform changes. They’re going to gender neutral uniforms, except these uniforms all look like male uniforms. I understand the concept that the navy wants everyone to look alike and ensure uniformity. But what happened to uniforms looking professional while remaining feminine?  We had this whole movement to change uniforms to look professional and feminine, and now, we’re moving away from that. If you believe that giving me a new hat is going to help me garner respect or allow me to be treated more equally, it’s not going to happen. It’s just a head scratcher to me.

AW: One advantage that women in the service have today that we did not, is a large spread of women in senior positions to serve as role models and hopefully as mentors. Would you agree?

ML: Yes. When I first got out of Naval Academy, I was still very much in survival mode. We just didn’t have mentors. Now that I’m older, I don’t know if I’m wiser, but I do realize how important mentoring is. It started hitting me when I was a lieutenant in the construction battalion. It’s a responsibility to mentor, even if you’re not comfortable with it.  I’m an introvert, I’m an engineer, but I had to do it. Women are starved for direction work-wise and family-wise, and it’s the responsibility of senior women to do this.

AW: After twenty-six years of active duty service, have you thought about retirement? Do you know what you’ll do after this tour?

ML:  I'll probably retire after this tour. I will have been in for twenty-nine years. Not sure what I'll do next. I do know that it's my husband's turn to do what he wants. He teaches physics at a private school, so whatever he wants to do is fine with me. I just want my husband and son to be happy. They love it in Hawaii, so we'll see!

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