Thursday, December 11, 2014

Women Who Inspire: Interview with Cathy Masar

This month's interview is with a very recently retired navy captain, Cathy Masar. Join the navy, see the world! She's done that and then some.

Commander Cathy Masar - Change of Command, Boston
Military Entrance Processing Station, 2011
Cathy Masar graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science in Economics. During her 25-year career, she served in a wide variety of positions including Training Officer aboard USS Abraham Lincoln, Flag Lieutenant for the Sixth Fleet Commander, Facilitator and Instructor at the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, Commanding Officer of the Boston Military Entrance Processing Station, and Executive Director, Total Force Management for the U. S. Pacific Fleet. Cathy retired with the rank of Captain (O-6) and currently works at Amazon as a Senior Human Resources Business Partner. Cathy lives in Seattle, WA.
AW: You just retired after twenty-five years of active duty service as a navy captain. You’ve served all over the world, ashore and at sea, but it all started back in Orofino, Idaho! What led you to choose the Naval Academy?

CM: It was several things. I have three very smart older sisters, who were in college at the time, and it would have been difficult financially for my family to support four daughters in school at the same time. I also wanted to serve, to travel, to see the world, and to be challenged. And my dad was a captain in the navy reserve and served on active duty in Vietnam aboard a hospital ship.

AW: How would you characterize your time at the Naval Academy?

CM: It was hard—the first two years, especially. I struggled with time management. With all the stuff we had to do there—all those extracurricular activities—I was overwhelmed. But I did have help from a Class of ’88 grad, who helped me prioritize and get myself going. I learned to focus.

AW: Any bright spots?

USNA Economics majors visit the New York
Stock Exchange, 1989
L to R, Cathy Masar, Eric Cheney, Heather Purvis
CM: Oh, definitely. I loved Halloween at Navy. We got to dress up. No one was mean to each other. It was all fun. To this day, Halloween is my favorite holiday! My roommates were another bright spot, as we went through such a challenging experience together. And Father Pucciarelli [a marine corps chaplain stationed at USNA when we were there]. Remember him? I went to him for advice when I was having trouble and he pointed to my shoes and said I needed to shine my shoes. I thought, what does that have to do with anything? But then he went on to say that I needed to start with the small things, things that I could control, forget about the other stuff, and I would feel better about myself. He was right.

AW: You served as a General Unrestricted Line Officer and, reading through your bio, you did some really cool stuff—and a wide variety, at that. What was your favorite tour?

CM: My most professionally rewarding tour was aboard [the aircraft carrier], Abraham Lincoln. I served as the Training Officer, but I also qualified as Officer of the Deck, which means, I was qualified to drive the ship. So there I was, driving an aircraft carrier, with planes taking off and landing, and I was a human resources specialist! Crazy! I also earned my Surface Warfare qualification, while assigned there.

AW: Okay, so that’s cool as hell, I just want to say. In charge on the bridge on an aircraft carrier! So you were on the Lincoln in 2001. This was seven years after the ban was lifted for women serving aboard combatant ships. What was the atmosphere like onboard?

CM: I would say it was the tour that hardened me the most. Up to this point, I had done a lot of shore tours and staff tours and working with admirals, so I was used to a little more politeness. But on the ship, it was a lot more crude. You know, the foul language, sailors getting arrested for drug and alcohol related offenses. Just a very different world.

AW: Were there many women on the ship?

Cathy Masar, kindergarten.
This little girl would
grow up to drive an
aircraft carrier.
CW: I don’t remember how many, exactly. But I do remember that fifty percent of the Reactor Department officers were women. These were nuclear surface warfare officers, which is a tough job for anyone—a huge job on a carrier—and these girls were sharp. So heartening to see what they were doing.

AW: Going back to working with admirals, you served as the Flag Lieutenant for the Sixth Fleet Commander, based in Gaeta, Italy.

CM: I did. I served as the Protocol Officer and the Flag Lieutenant for Sixth Fleet for two years and before that, I was in Naples, Italy and served as Protocol Officer and Flag Secretary for the Commander, Fleet Air Mediterranean.

AW: Four years in Italy! Sweet!

CM: You asked about my favorite tour earlier and I said my time on the Abraham Lincoln was the most professionally rewarding. But my favorite place was Italy. And the tours here allowed me to travel all over Europe.

AW: Were you stationed on a ship there?

CM: The command ship for the Sixth Fleet Commander was the USS La Salle, a converted amphibious ship. So yes, I had berthing there, but I also had a place in Formia, which was incredibly beautiful—glass walls, statues—wonderful.
AW: Did you get underway much?

CM: At least once a month, we would cruise into the Adriatic Sea, and then the Med, of course. I visited Casablanca, Israel, Greece, Algeria, Turkey. . . . We flew into Monaco.. . . I even got to accompany the admiral to Macedonia. Just an amazing opportunity.

AW: I’d say! And what was that like, working with admirals?

CM: It was extremely interesting, because I worked so closely with them. It sort of de-mystified them. I learned how they worked, how they allotted their time. They were managing so much and I got to see how they pulled it all together.

AW: I could for sure get stalled here and spend the rest of the time talking about Italy, but I wanted to touch on your time—earlier in your career—at the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI). You were stationed at Patrick Air Force Base for this?

CM: I was. This was in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and this tour was an absolute life changer for me. Prior to this, I had actually put in my resignation letter. This was only five years into my naval career. I was at the Recruit Training Command in Orlando and the base was being shut down, and I was getting a divorce, and I just didn’t have a plan. Someone mentioned an opportunity at DEOMI and wondered if I might be interested. I called my detailer and she said I could go there, so I pulled my resignation papers.

AW: I had no idea you’d submitted resignation papers at one point! So what did you do here?

CM: This command included all pay grades and all services and we had an intense four-month training period, where we received sensitized training on race relations, gender relations, and managing diversity. It was the one place in my whole career where sexist or racist comments were not tolerated- or even joked about. I mean, we were role models, so everyone respected each other and knew that the standard had to be high.

AW: As part of your job, you had to travel worldwide to instruct senior military leaders on diversity issues and the prevention of sexual harassment and racial discrimination. How were you received?

CM: Well . . . some groups were kind to us—we were assigned to mobile training teams—but some were hostile, too. But overall, I learned a great deal. How to get up in front of people, how do deliver unpopular training, and I learned valuable facilitation skills. That tour re-motivated and kick-started my career. I thought, after this, I’m ready to do anything.

AW: Any specific examples of a “hostile” crowd?

CM: I was surprised when we traveled to South Africa. This was just after the end of apartheid and I thought race relations would be the focus of our training. But we had a much harder time with women’s issues. That’s where we found the biases. Due to apartheid, they had already been addressing race issues, but not gender issues.

Captain Cathy Masar - Retirement Ceremony, Hawaii, 2014
AW: So interesting! Okay, so let’s fast forward to your last command, when you worked for the U. S. Pacific Fleet. You carried enormous responsibility here.

CM: Yes, I worked as N1 [Executive Director, Total Force Management], a job normally filled by a civilian, who is a flag officer equivalent. The woman in this position left, and I was asked to fill in for her, however, I stayed in this position for a full eighteen months!

AW: “Filling in” for  eighteen months. Classic. So what did this job entail and where were you stationed?

CM: I was in Hawaii for this tour and responsible for the manning of all ships in the Pacific Fleet and the human resources functions for over 130,000 military and civilian.

AW: That’s a big job by anyone’s standards!

CM: Definitely. But I had a great staff. Great support.

AW: And you retired from the navy after this?

CM: I did. Time to get back to family. And the timing was just right. I was ready.

AW: You work at Amazon now. How have you found the transition from military to civilian life?

CM: I had no idea what to expect and no time to prepare. I was so busy in my last job that when I retired, I was just suddenly out there. I networked through Linked In and that really helped, but job searching was a humbling experience.

AW: So you’ve been at Amazon how long now?

CM: Only a month. In fact, I haven’t had to work on the Friday after Thanksgiving in a long time (the military usually gives that day off), but I was working at Amazon yesterday, on Black Friday.

AW: Ha! Black Friday. At Amazon. Nothing like being thrown into the fire! So I guess your navy experience served you well here.

CM: It certainly did!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

To the Men of the Naval Academy Class of 1989

I don’t want you to feel left out. Yes, the women of our class have been the focus of my blog interviews, but only because I favor a strong female protagonist in my novels, and my goal is to bring real-life examples of these types of women—women who inspire—to the fore.

The men in the Class of 1989 have gone on to stellar careers in both the military and civilian worlds, accomplishing some extraordinary things. Just like the women I’ve interviewed, each of you has a fascinating story to tell, a story that deserves to be heard, just like any other. Neurosurgeons, carrier air wing commanders, commodores, CEO's of million-dollar companies. It blows my mind, really, what you’ve collectively achieved.

With such an elite group, it’s no surprise that you’re a rare one, too. Less than half of one percent of male veterans living today are Naval Academy graduates. A half of a percent. A special fellowship indeed.

And because you matriculated in the Class of ‘89, you did so with the women who would become only the tenth graduating class of women from the Academy, our 94 officers to your 970. Women were still new, relatively speaking, to the service academies at this point. There weren’t even enough of us to populate each company. You remember. In a particular company, you might have a smattering of third classmen here, a random few first classmen there. Some of you even went through our school without ever having a woman from the Class of ‘89 in your company. My husband, for one, would be included in this count. Suffice it to say, it was an interesting time for all of us.

Not only were we women working out how to blend in, but you guys were figuring it out, too. Now, I’m not going to go where it seems most women-in-the-military articles go. To the harassment. To the assaults. Did we experience this? Yes. But that’s not the topic of this article.

No, this time, I want to recognize our male classmates who helped us to succeed. Who stood up for us when it wasn’t popular to do so, who had our backs—you who respected us just as you did your male company mates. And there were a lot of you. This continued into the fleet and beyond, and to you, I offer my sincere gratitude.

This camaraderie began as plebes, when we suffered the same misery and missteps that came part and parcel with that interminably long year. I think that when struggling next to someone, regardless of ethnicity or gender or whatever, it tends to make us a little more accepting of the other. There was bonding to be had on many levels. We chopped together, stood restriction together, marched tours, braced up, and even passed out at sweat shop parties, the full meal deal, side by side. The result? A common bond born through shared experience and something you—our male classmates—took with you into the fleet, consciously or not.

Some of you who took the oath of office in July 1985, weren’t all that sure—and that’s obviously putting it lightly—about having women in the ranks. It’s my hope that some of your minds were changed as you worked with us and served with us. But even as I write this, I know that’s probably not the case, nor will it ever be.

I’ll give you an example and I’ll preface it this way. Any of you who know me, know I’m not a braggart, and that is not at all what is intended here. But it’s one personal example I have—one of many, unfortunately—that some people’s minds will never be changed about women in the service.

My aircrew and I were named Helicopter Aircrew of the Year for 1997 by the Naval Helicopter Association (NHA). This award for search and rescue is given to both embarked and non-embarked crews. We won that year in the non-embarked category for the rescue of thirteen people in the 100-year flood that affected Yosemite and the area surrounding Reno, NV.

Year after year, it’s the coast guard units who normally come away with this award, performing extraordinary feats of daring do in Alaska, during hurricanes, with fifty-foot waves . . . you get the idea.

Our operation didn’t involve the ocean, but it was considered harrowing enough to be grouped with the coast guard folks. Our rescue occurred in a mountain canyon at night, in a storm with freezing rain and uncooperative winds, picking people—including stranded swift water rescue team members—from  some tricky spots with literally just minutes before the structures they were clinging to collapsed. Yes, it was difficult, but to put this into perspective, we’re not talking combat here. No one was shooting at us. 
So anyway, first, we were put in for the NHA’s Western Region award, which we won, and we traveled to San Diego for a low-key awards ceremony. Then, we were picked among the regional award winners as the national winner. The ceremony this time was formal, again held in San Diego, but this time in a hotel ballroom with a fancy dinner, wearing dress whites, with high-ranking officers and leaders of the industry present. I sat next to the vice president of Bell Helicopters at dinner, if I recall it correctly.

After all the hoopla, my crew and I returned home to our base in Nevada—Naval Air Station Fallon—and back to the business of providing SAR support for visiting carrier air wings, and flying our specialty mission, technical mountain rescue.

During a flight in Fallon shortly after the formal awards ceremony, while discussing the events of the previous days, my male co-pilot turned to me and asked, “Do you think they gave you that award because you’re female?” That’s a direct quote, by the way.

I remember turning to him and saying, “Are you joking or are you serious?”

“I’m serious,” he said, straight-faced, without a hint of humor.

I didn’t think of it at that moment, but I wish I had said, “Why don’t you ask the four men who were with me on that flight? Let me know how they feel about that question.” I was the mission commander on that particular flight with a male co-pilot, a male crew chief, a male rescue swimmer, and a male corpsman.

The question shouldn’t have been a surprise, not based on the pilot who asked it. His mind was made up. Women weren’t supposed to be in the cockpit. Period. It wouldn’t have mattered what I had done or what any of the other women in our class who went on to stellar aviation careers had done. His mind was set.

This particular pilot was not a Naval Academy graduate, but much of the support and offers of congratulations I did receive, came from Naval Academy graduates—men of our class, who considered me one of their own. It was surprising, heartening, and meant the world.

I served on active duty for just over nine years, and during that time, my goal was to do my job well, and hopefully, change a few minds, one interaction at a time. I’d like to think I succeeded some of the time. But, of course, there were examples like the one I shared with you, where it was a done deal. I was never going to convince the person otherwise. It was one of the most frustrating things I experienced in my naval service.

I’m not saying I didn’t make mistakes. Of course, I did. We all do. Men and women both. It’s how we learn and mature and grow. The frustration comes though, when you do get it right, and the person refuses to see it or acknowledge it, purely based on gender, ethnicity, or what have you.

I realize, now re-reading what I’ve just written, I’ve gone off on a bit of a rant here. That wasn’t my intent. What I really wanted to do was recognize the men I served with who did not wear the blinders. Or if they did, the ones who took them off and allowed themselves an open view.

I spoke with a dear friend, a male classmate, at our 25th reunion, who has supported women in the ranks from the get go. During his career, he has commanded on the order of thousands—men, women, junior, senior—just like so many of you have done. He summed up his feelings on the issue in his trademark “eloquent” way. “I don’t care who you are, just do your f---in’ job!” That is, he treats his officers as officers, and as long as they’re competent, it’s all good.

I’d say that’s it in a nutshell. Should you face the consequences if you fail to do your job? Of course. But conversely, you’d think you could get a nod of acknowledgement, just something, if you’re doing it right. At least be afforded the decency of beginning a working relationship with an open mind.

So my Veteran’s Day sentiment is just a bit different this year. For those of you who have treated us with respect, who have supported us just as you would any other officer, and especially for those who did so when we lived together in Bancroft Hall, thank you.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Women Who Inspire: Musings from our 25th Naval Academy Reunion

U. S. Naval Academy - Stribling Walk
Women of the Naval Academy Class of 1989 are a special lot. Only the tenth graduating class of women, they made up a mere nine percent of the class at the time, compared with twenty-two percent today, and were commissioned just a few years before combat exclusion laws were changed to allow service aboard combatant ships and the piloting of tactical aircraft.

I’ve conducted interviews with several of them as part of my Women Who Inspire series and I hope to continue to do so as long as they’ll oblige me. But it was a special treat this reunion weekend to meet with so many personally, catch up on where the time and tide had taken them, and reminisce about our four years together by the bay.

My author self—the introvert, the observer, the listener—couldn’t help but notice some commonalities among the members of this extraordinary group. Their talents have taken them in a variety of directions—piano teachers, commercial airline pilots, pharmaceutical sales reps, stay-at-home moms, attorneys, naval base commanding officers, engineers, home school teachers, one carrier air group commander, physicians, school volunteers, business owners, real estate agents, elementary school teachers, corporate executives, and the list goes on—but almost to a person, when I mentioned I’d probably be hitting them up for an interview in the future, they demurred. “Well, I guess, if you want,” they would say. “But really, you should interview so and so.”

Even those I’ve already had the pleasure to interview, when I first contacted them, the response was similar. “Are you sure you want me? You should interview so and so.”

And so, I would ask so and so. And she would say, “Me? Oh, no. You should interview so and so.”

And so it went.

Modest. Humble. And not falsely so. As a matter of course, these women have put their noses to the grindstone and done their jobs—competently—with little fanfare, and have reaped the rewards, the promotions, and the well-deserved accolades that have come as a result.

For most, they summarize how they've gotten to their current stations in life with a simple sentiment:  “I just did my job.”

I suspect this mindset, this ethic, has a lot to do with the foundation forged through grit  and frustration at the Naval Academy, especially at a time when women weren’t trying to stand out, but rather, fit in. Personally, I’d never worked so hard in my life only to fall, get up, and fall again. But somehow, ninety-four women shook off the set-backs, squared their shoulders and moved forward.

Once these women graduated, for many, it was more challenges and trials Academy style, but multiplied times a thousand—deployments, separations, harassment, deaths, divorces, sacrifices too numerous to count—life smacking them upside the head until they had no more tears left to cry. But again, they stood up.

Which leads me to another commonality. Inner fortitude. This steel lining is invisible, and yet, immediately recognizable. I hadn't seen some of these women since 1985 even—our plebe summer—twenty-nine freakin’ years ago. But even if I didn’t recognize someone at first, I knew almost as soon as the first words were out of her mouth that she was a classmate.

So it’s easy to see why many of these women have enjoyed close, enduring friendships over the years. For me, if I’m honest, I feel that I flutter about on the periphery somewhere—that introvert thing again—always on the outside looking in. But even so, I feel more comfortable, more at home, and have more in common with these women than any I’ve met since. Mutual respect? Probably. A common bond formed at school and one nurtured through shared military service? Definitely. Whatever it is, I value it greatly, far more than I ever thought I would.

I look forward to bringing more of my classmates’ fascinating stories to you and highlighting their achievements—crow a bit for them—because they deserve it. And someone has to do it, because in this modern news culture, one ravenous for scandal, these women who just do their jobs, don’t make the headlines, and therefore, don’t get their due. Which is ironic, of course, because this is exactly the trait that makes them so special. They don’t draw attention to themselves, don’t brag, don’t peacock. They just get the job done, over and over, across the country and across the globe, whether minding their kids at home or commanding a naval air station or both, quietly and competently, and always, it seems, when no one is looking.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Women Who Inspire: Interview with Joan

Joan is the first active duty navy captain I have interviewed and she packs quite a story. To pluck just one tidbit from her impressive resume, she was the first woman assigned to the guided-missile cruiser, USS Chancellorsville (CG 62)!

Joan graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Political Science from the US Naval Academy and reported to Navy Supply Corps School. In an active duty career that is still going strong twenty-five years later, she has served aboard USS MARS (AFS 1), USS SAMUEL GOMPERS (AD 37), USS CHANCELLORSVILLE (CG 62), and USS WASP (LHD 1). Her shore tours have taken her across the country and back again, during which time she earned her MBA from George Washington University and a Masters in Strategic Studies from the Naval War College, Newport, RI. She currently holds the rank of Captain (O-6). 

AW: When I looked over your biography, one of the first things that jumps out is the amount of sea time you’ve accumulated on four different ships. Did you have a favorite tour of those four?

JO: Well, it is a pretty typical amount of sea duty for a Supply Corps Officer. My first ship was decommissioned after a year, and then I spent two years on each of the other ships. My two department head tours on the Chancellorsville and the Wasp were the best . . . both in the opportunity they provided to lead and make a difference, and in the friends I made.

AW: It’s interesting to me that you served on support ships first—the Mars [a stores ship] and the Samuel Gompers [a destroyer tender], but then moved to combatant ships with the cruiser Chancellorsville [a guided missile cruiser] and the Wasp [an amphibious assault ship]. Did they have fully integrated crews by the time you got to Chancellorsville?

JO: Actually, I was the first woman to be assigned to Chancellorsville along with the navigator. This was right after the combat exclusions laws changed. I think we arrived within a few days of each other. And then they brought female enlisted onboard about a month after that. She [the Chancellorsville] had just come out of the shipyards and among other navigation and combat related alterations, they had modified the berthing compartments to accommodate women.

AW: You said earlier you were a department head on Chancellorsville. Were there any other female department heads? And did any other women join you in the wardroom or was it just you and the navigator?

JO: Yes, I was the only female department head. But we also had other women in the wardroom. The Electrical Officer, the Tomahawk Strike Officer, and the CIC [Combat Information Center] Officer, I think, were women. So maybe a total of six women in a wardroom of just under forty.

AW: Did you see a lot of underway time on the Chancellorsville?

JO: Not the first six months, but during work-ups for certain, and in the second year, she switched home ports from San Diego to Yokosuka, Japan. Then definitely, we were at sea a lot. Basically, we got underway whenever the Kitty Hawk did because we were her shooter. But it was a great tour. As a department head at sea like that, I felt I had the most opportunity to influence sailors and young officers and then, of course, we were fundamentally supporting the warfighters, so that was great.

AW: You were also the Supply Officer on the Wasp—a huge responsibility. There must have been what, over 1,000 personnel aboard? And that’s not counting the Marine complement, which would have been 2,000 more.  

JO: Yeah, I had a good size department—up to  120 people. But I had great division officers and chiefs, so that helped enormously. I really loved that job and had a terrific team . . . they worked hard every day and made me look good.

AW: I don’t mean to harp on the woman-at-sea thing, but the subject is interesting to me because those in our class [USNA Class of 1989] entered the fleet before combat exclusion laws were changed, so people like you saw a lot of “firsts.” You had an integrated crew on the WASP, just like Chancellorsville, so I was wondering what the atmosphere was like on those ships? Did leadership set the tone?

JO: Without question leadership sets the tone in these situations. We’ve had integrated crews for over thirty years now, and the crew takes its cues from the boss. Generally speaking, if it’s a non-issue to the captain, it’s a non-issue to the crew. I have, of course, seen significant improvements during my career.

AW: And how about you personally, being in a position of leadership?

JO: You know, I’ve never had a problem because I’ve never made it an issue. I’ve always wanted to be a good naval officer, not a good female naval officer. I mean, obviously being female is important to who I am, but it’s not important to my job.

AW: So, do you have a favorite sea story?

JO: I do and it’s one I tell my junior officers as an example that you just never know what you’re going to have to tell the captain. I was on the Chancellorsville and one of our H-60 helicopters was down hard. I told the captain that we’d get the part we needed when we pulled alongside the Niagara Falls [AFS 3, a combat stores ship]. Once alongside, I’m speaking with the Supply Officer of the Niagara Falls on the phone, and surprise, they don’t have the part. We wouldn’t get it for another 48 hours, in fact. So I’m not looking forward to telling the captain about this. I was on my way to the bridge to tell the him, when I was stopped by one of my junior officers. He explained that one of our sailors had washed the captain’s laundry with blue towels and everything turned blue—his skivvies, his t-shirts, everything. So the sailor tried to fix it by bleaching everything. He bleached it to the point that there were now holes all over the captain’s skivvies and they were no longer wearable. Our ship’s store didn’t carry his size, either. So I get to the bridge, and I say, “Skipper, I have bad news and really bad news.” The sailors on the bridge are all leaning in, by the way, trying to get the scoop. “The bad news is that we didn’t get the part for the 60.”  He paused for a few seconds and adjusted his glasses as he would often do when he was irritated. “And so what’s the really bad news, Suppo?”  “Well, sir . . . about your underwear . . .”

AW: [I actually didn’t ask another question here, I just interrupted Joan because I couldn't stop laughing.]

JO: The captain was so embarrassed that the whole parts issue for the 60 went completely unmentioned, and he just muttered something to the effect that his wife would take care of it and tried to shoo me off the bridge as quickly as possible.

AW: Joan, that is hilarious! 

JO: (laughing) Yeah, never a dull moment, huh?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Phrog on Fire: A SEAL's Tale

The helicopter featured in my debut novel, HOVER, is the H-46 Sea Knight, known colloquially as the "Phrog." It was my primary aircraft during my time in the navy and a real treat to fly. John Czajkowski, my Naval Academy classmate and former Navy SEAL, writes this guest post about one of his more memorable flights in the H-46. Thank you, John!

I have a funny story about helo pilots for you starring Denise Shorey [our Naval Academy classmate] and yours truly. She and a senior female pilot were to fly my squad out about 20 NM past Point Loma and drop us and a CRRC [Combat Rubber Raiding Craft] boat out using the "limp duck" drop just after sunset on a beautiful, clear fall evening in the early 90s. Well, this was the first time we had ever flown with female pilots, so some of the guys were a little anxious about it.

So, as luck would have it, as we got about half of the way to the DZ [Drop Zone], sparks and smoke started billowing out of the APU [Auxiliary Power Unit] area. As the bird did a very hard 180 back to NAS [Naval Air Station], I said to Denise over the net that it did appear they would not be dropping us off, and she replied that we might be very useful. She wasn't kidding as the thing was totally on fire now. They dropped down to a very low altitude in case we had to ditch.

I had been in one autorotation/crash with army MH-60s a year prior and would also survive a midair rotor hit while flying with TF160 several years later. Helos . . .WTF is up with them?

Anyway, my squad and I were pleased to look into the cockpit and see the girls flipping a hundred switches/minute and scrambling to try to keep us aloft. Suffice to say, it was exciting to watch the crash trucks following us as we came screaming over NAS NI [Naval Air Station North Island - San Diego] runway. So, there was a box of good tequila delivered to the squadron the next morning.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Women Who Inspire: Interview with Casey (Jamieson) Johnson

Next up in the series of Women Who Inspire, it's Casey (Jamieson) Johnson!

Casey (Jamieson) Johnson graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering and reported to Naval Intelligence Officer School. She served as the Anti-Submarine Warfare Intelligence Officer for VP-24 and worked in the Pentagon both as the Assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence and as an Intelligence Analyst in the Naval Information Warfare Activity. After six years of active duty service, Casey returned to the civilian sector, remaining in the Naval Reserves for an additional three years, achieving the rank of Lieutenant Commander (O-4).  

AW: You selected the field of Naval Intelligence coming out of the Academy. Is that something you had always wanted to do?

CJ: Actually, no. I was pushed into it. (Laughs). I had wanted aviation all along, but it turns out that I was a quarter inch too short. Admiral Hill [Naval Academy Superintendent] and his wife used to joke that they should hang me upside down to stretch me. I didn’t find out until two days before service selection that I wouldn’t be able to get a waiver. Fortunately, I was one of the first women to service select, so I was able to get one of the four Intelligence billets available.

AW: You served as the ASW Intelligence Officer for VP-24 [Anti-Submarine Warfare squadron that flew the P-3 Orion] in Jacksonville, FL. Was that your first duty station after Naval Intelligence Officer School?
CJ:  Yes, that was a great tour. In fact, that was my favorite tour. I was the only female officer in the wardroom, and I think about half of the wardroom were graduates from the Naval Academy – Class of  '86 and '87—which helped me to make friends quickly. They were a great group (all of them).

AW: Did you deploy with them?

CJ: Yes, we deployed to Iceland for six months. And people always get Greenland and Iceland mixed up, by the way, because Greenland is icy and Iceland is green.

AW: I had no idea! So what was your job in Iceland?

CJ: Primarily, I gave the flight crews their intel briefings prior to their flights. I was also attached to the local intel unit as a TAD officer.

AW: Intel like where to look for subs?

CJ: Yes, we would give them a potential target area to monitor and tell them what to listen for. They would drop an appropriate sonobuoy pattern  and just listen. They’d stay on station for eight hours.

AW: Very cool. I’m sort of thinking The Hunt for Red October here. So did they ever find anything or is that classified?

CJ: Well, actually we had one major hit on that deployment, and it was so long ago, I’m sure it’s declassified by now. There was a high opportunity target that we wanted a signature on, so we did a lot of work to get the intel we needed on it and finally determined that it might be out of port on patrol. Our aircrews went on station and got the first signature data ever captured on it. That was pretty cool.

AW: And after VP-24?

CJ: I went to Washington, D.C., primarily because it was the easiest place to get stationed with my husband. We were engaged at the time, so when I got up there, the detailer looked for Intel billets for my husband, who was still on deployment, and it was easy to find him a job. There are literally hundreds of Intel billets in D.C.
AW: When did you meet your husband?

CJ: I met him at Intel School, and then we dated long-distance for two years while I was in Florida and he was in California. We got engaged while I was still at VP-24.

AW: And where was he?

CJ: He was in San Diego and served as the Intel Officer for HS-4 [helicopter squadron] and deployed with the Kitty Hawk. Oh, and a story for you, which you’ll appreciate since you flew the 46 [H-46 Sea Knight helicopter]. My husband flew off the Kitty Hawk to Bahrain in an H-46 and the helo starts hemorrhaging hydraulic fluid. I mean, he was drenched in it. My husband told one of the crewmen, “Hey guys, we’re getting poured on back here,” to which the response was something like, “Let me know if it stops, because if it stops, we’re in trouble. As long as we have fluid, we’re good.”

AW: Ok, that is hilarious! And sort of typical, actually, of the kind of stuff we encountered with the 46. What memories! So you were together, then, in D.C. after that?

CJ: Yes, After that tour, he moved to Washington, D.C., we got married, I got pregnant, and we got out! In that order.

AW: Did you have your kids while you were still in the navy or was that after you got out?

CJ: I had my oldest daughter when I was still on active duty and working at NavSecGru. And that was a unique, only-in-the-navy experience. I was assigned to Bethesda Naval Hospital for the delivery and the baby was frank breech, so I needed to have a scheduled C-section. Now Bethesda is a training hospital, so everyone present in the operating room that day had a training partner with them. There were like fifteen people in there watching me get spliced open !

AW: Nice audience!

CJ: Yeah, tell me about it! I found out later that my C-section was an actual scheduled training event for that day.

AW: Why am I not surprised? So then you left active duty soon after, right?

CJ: Yes, my husband and I met with the detailer and we realized that we would be on opposite deployment schedules, lots of underway time, little family time, and so we decided it was a good time to leave.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Deployment for Two

Sweet homecoming
I had written three novels of epic fantasy and one medical thriller when I made the decision—finally—to try to get published. For my fifth novel, I knew I wanted to write a love story with a strong female protagonist, but when I began my research into agents and editors, they all called for the same thing—something unique!

At the time, using the Navy as a setting wasn’t an option, a thought, or even a microscopic notion. I had simply never considered it.

I was at such a loss for an idea, I began writing my fourth novel of epic fantasy to fill the time. About six chapters into this new manuscript, now July 2011, the Navy announced it would begin assigning women to submarines. I’ll never forget when my husband looked at me and said, “A woman in the Navy. That’s your story.”

Common advice given to authors is to write what you know. The Navy? I knew this. A love story set in a battle group, particularly with a woman as the main protagonist? Unique. And as a bonus, I knew what it would be like for my protagonist to deploy with someone she loved.

My husband and I met at the Naval Academy and had been married for four years when we deployed together with the USS Nimitz battle group—he on the USS Lake Champlain, a guided missile cruiser, and me on the USS Kansas City, a replenishment oiler. Our first Western Pacific deployment was short by today’s standards, just six months. At that time, in 1993, women were still prohibited from serving on combatant ships, however, a growing number of auxiliary ships were opening their decks to women, including the Kansas City.

My roommate and I were the first women to deploy aboard the Kansas City, members of the air detachment, flying the H-46 helicopter. It was just the two of us, serving with a crew of about 500. Our battle group, now called a carrier strike group, counted four women total—two of our squadron mates were deployed aboard the ammunition ship, USS Shasta—in a task force numbering about 7,000.

Of those 7,000, one was my husband, Bill, who flew the H-60 helicopter. That we were assigned to the same battle group was pure happenstance, a matter of timing more than anything. Because we entered flight school at the same time and eventually received our wings on the same day, the timing of our arrival to our fleet squadrons matched, and our deployment schedules somehow aligned from there—for the first long deployment, anyway.

Bill on the flight deck of the Lake Champlain

Because HOVER takes place in present day, the main characters, Sara and Eric, are able to use email and cell phones to communicate. However, when Bill and I deployed, there was no such thing, not onboard ships, anyway. So we found other ways to communicate. Fortunately for us, the other ships in the battle group relied on the Kansas City for their food, fuel, supply parts and ammunition. We conducted something called CONREP, or connected replenishment, where ships would come alongside ours, lines would be cast between the two to connect them, and hoses run across those lines so we could deliver fuel. During these evolutions, if we weren’t flying, we could wave to each other, while standing on our respective flight decks.

When appropriate, we also talked to each other via the hand-held radios we carried with us for flying, the PRC-90. And when I landed on the Lake Champlain, as we did on daily logistics flights, we took advantage of our in-house “mail delivery system,” otherwise known as passing notes.

Sara and Eric’s story is not the tale of Anne and Bill. Our love story was quite different and maybe there’s another blog article in that. But I drew from our joint experiences in the fabrication of Sara and Eric’s journey, and I’ll briefly touch on one of those angles here—a couple serving in a risky work environment, both in harm’s way. A modern issue, to be sure, now that so many married couples and partners deploy together. 

For example, during work-ups for our deployment, one of our H-46 aircraft had to ditch in the Pacific. Bill was in the cockpit of his H-60, turning on the deck of the Lake Champlain, when the call came that a Sideflare—the call sign for our H-46 helicopter—had gone in the water. Only two Sideflare helicopters were flying that day, so there was a fifty percent chance it was my aircraft. He was about to lift from the deck to provide search and rescue support, when his officer in charge pulled him from the cockpit and replaced him with another pilot. 

Bill remembers that perhaps he may have had a few choice words for his boss for pulling him from a mission. His officer in charge explained that no one knew yet if I was in the helicopter that had gone down. But in Bill’s mind, whether I had been in the bird or not, he felt he should have been able to fly. He clearly remembers the rush of adrenaline and thinking, “A helicopter’s in the water! Let’s go!”

He learned later that I was flying in the second helicopter when the first ditched. In fact, we performed the rescue for the pilot, while the ship sent a small boat to retrieve the remainder of the crew.

The tables were turned during a transit through the Strait of Hormuz, when another helicopter went down, this time at night. Initial reports indicated it was an H-60. As I learned later, Bill did the search for that aircraft, an H-2, which in this case, ended tragically with the deaths of all four crew members.

Comparing notes after each incident, we both admitted reacting in a detached way to those initial reports of helicopters in the water, compartmentalizing and responding to the task at hand of searching for a downed aircraft. The emotional side—What if he/she is in the aircraft?—never kicked in for us.

I want to point out that Sara and Eric react and respond differently than Bill and I would have in several scenes in HOVER, due to the requirements of the story, its arc and plot. But like I said earlier, Sara and Eric are fictional characters in a fictional setting doing things that will hopefully keep the reader turning the pages.

But back to reality, I’ve heard it many times in discussions about integrating women into combat units that men might act differently with women present and vice versa. But what I personally experienced and what we witnessed time and again was consummate professionalism, men and women doing their jobs side by side, just as they were trained. 

Granted, the emotional stakes were higher since we were married. But Bill says that if he ever found himself worrying about me, he would tell himself, “Anne knows what she’s doing. You just need to make sure you know what you’re doing.” I felt the same way, channeling my focus into doing my job well, knowing Bill was doing his, and understanding that worrying wouldn't accomplish much of anything. 

Yes, it was a unique shared experience for a married couple, but the Navy trained us well, and I think we handled it like any professional military service member would, just as our soldiers, sailors and airmen do today.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Women Who Inspire: Interview with Margaret (Marcantonio) Rayburn

Here's another in my continuing series of interviews with women who inspire the strong female protagonists in my novels. This time, meet Margaret Rayburn!

Margaret (Marcantonio) Rayburn graduated with a Bachelor of Science in General Engineering from the US Naval Academy and reported to Navy Recruiting Area Three, Macon, GA. She acted as the Advertising and Marketing Support Officer for three years before transferring to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), Troy, MI, where she served as the Operations Officer. After six years of active duty service, Margaret returned to the civilian sector, remaining in the Naval Reserves for an additional two years, achieving the rank of Lieutenant Commander (O-4). She currently works for a segment of UnitedHealth Group called Optum as a Vice President for Population Health Management Reporting. Margaret lives with her husband, Jeff (USNA '87) and two daughters, Meghan and Michaela, in Eden Prairie, MN - just outside of Minneapolis.  Her son, Joey, is a Navy sailor (ET3) and is completing Nuclear Power School in Charleston, SC. Meghan graduated from Loyola University New Orleans with a Bachelor of Music Therapy in May 2014, and is currently working at her internship in the twin cities area for board certification.  

AW:  Margaret, why the Naval Academy?

MR: My older brother went there—Class of ‘82.  When he was a plebe, I went to visit him during Parent’s Weekend, and I said, “I’m gonna do this!” I was only eleven years old—in sixth grade. I remember my mom’s reaction—something like, “Yeah . . . right.”

AW: Was she surprised that you were still talking about it in high school?

MR: Yeah. But then it was that slow realization that, wow, she’s really serious about this.

AW: Did you apply to any other schools?

MR: Yes, I was accepted at the University of Michigan, and I actually thought that’s where I was going because I hadn't heard back from the Naval Academy. I just assumed I hadn't been accepted.

AW: So what happened?

MR: It turns out they had lost my paperwork. My congressmen called me while I was in the middle of a final exam in government class—this is in May, mind you, one month before Plebe Summer begins—and he told me I had gotten in.

AW: You only had a month’s notice that you were going to the Naval Academy!

MR: Yeah, is that crazy? (laughs)

AW: I would say so! Looking through your biography, it says you served in Troy, MI, at the MEPS [Military Entrance Processing Station].

MR: I was the Operations Officer there. It was a small joint command, and we did the entrance processing for the high school kids coming into the service. They would take their aptitude tests there, get their physicals, all of that.

AW: Was this just for the navy or all of the services?

MR: This was for all of the services. Once the kids knew what they were qualified for, they would pick their job, sign their contract, take their oath of office, and then we’d ship them off to boot camp. In fact, I did the swearing in for these kids.

AW: You mean like, “I, Jane Smith, do solemnly swear. . .”

MR: Yep. I did that for thousands of new service members.

AW: Thousands? How many people did you process through your command?

MR: Oh, gosh. Probably fifteen hundred kids a month.

AW: Fifteen hundred per month! 

MR: Yeah, we were a busy place. We probably had eighty kids per day coming in for physicals.

AW: I had no idea. But you know, that is really kind of cool. Taking the oath of office is a big deal. I mean, it’s the common starting point for all of us—regardless of service, regardless of rank—and you were the one administering this to umpteen thousand kids.

MR: I guess you’re right. We always had families coming in to watch and take pictures. It was a pretty big event for most.

AW: And you were the one starting them on their journeys. That really strikes a chord with me. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a parent. It’s like sending your kids off into the big, wide world to start their lives.

MR: Yeah, I know what you mean. Each swearing in ceremony was a proud moment for me.

AW: After your tour at the MEPS, you transitioned into the civilian world and went to work for Electronic Data Systems as a business analyst. Was that an easy transition or did you find any difficulty there?

MR: The transition wasn’t so bad. It was almost the same work-wise. I just wasn’t wearing a uniform anymore. But the weirdest thing was that the hierarchy was gone. I was so used to my chain of command in the navy. You always knew your place. You knew who you went to if you needed something. So that took some getting used to.

AW: How about the hiring process? I’ve heard over and over from others how their military experience didn’t open the doors for them as they thought it would.

MR: Yeah, that part was frustrating. I had just left a smaller command, but due to the way it was structured, I actually held a rather high position—almost like an executive officer. I was responsible for an awful lot of people. But when I went to interview, I was told I didn’t have management experience. I explained that I lead so many people—I can’t remember the exact number now—but they countered that it wasn’t the same thing. I basically didn’t get any credit for my leadership experience, so I had to start at the bottom rung of the company and work my way back into a management position. In fact, I had to take a fifty percent pay cut from what I was making in the military.

AW: Ouch. So I realize I’m skipping around here, but your husband, Jeff, is a Class of ’87 grad. Did you meet him at school or later?

MR: We actually met at school, in the Catholic Choir. I went to a Superintendent’s reception at the end of our plebe year, and I met him there. We weren’t in uniforms or anything, so it was somewhat of a normal meeting, I guess you would say. We’ve been together ever since.

AW: That means when you were a youngster, you were dating a firstie with a car! Lucky!

MR: I know! He had a brand new mustang. It was sweet.

AW: I’m laughing because Bill and I just walked around downtown Annapolis in our uniforms for our “dates.” So do you have a favorite memory of the Naval Academy? 

MR: You mean besides graduation? (laughs) Oh, let’s see. I would say it was plebe year right after we beat Army [in football]. Everything was fairly lax at school after that. Everyone was happy heading into Christmas break. Remember how they gave us carry-on? No chopping. No yelling. It was almost like a normal college, and it was the first time I hadn't felt like a plebe.

AW: I absolutely remember that! 

MR: Our room faced out onto Goat Court [a courtyard within the walls of Bancroft Hall—the dormitory that houses the brigade of midshipman]. As plebes, we weren’t allowed to have stereos or music, but after the Army-Navy game, the upperclassmen would put their stereos in the windows and play Christmas music. I remember opening our window to listen to the music, and it was heaven. I felt so happy—like a normal human being.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Mom Contest

For years, my sisters and I have bantered about who is winning the "mom contest."

Of course, the playful digs are there:

Most stubborn like Mom? Me.

Most clinical like Mom? Again, me.

Who would rather have a tooth pulled before going shopping for clothes at the mall? My mom and I would hold hands at the dentist.

All of these things play out in good-natured fun, and yes, I am probably “winning” this “race.” But my mom and I share a lot more than stubbornness. One facet of our connectedness lies in the professional paths we chose—medicine for her, military aviation for me—both at times when women in these respective fields found themselves in the rather small minority.

She graduated from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine in 1955, a class comprising 80 men and 4 women. She had to apply three times to get in, and when she did, she wasn’t exactly met with balloons and confetti.

Her biochemistry professor bragged that the women in his class would flunk. He even sat them in the front row of his lecture hall—they had to sit side by side—so he “could keep an eye on them.”

Crotchety old medical school professors aside, my mom said she felt fortunate to have had so many World War II veterans in her class. They had come home from the war older and more grounded—you can imagine—so having a woman in their class was small potatoes. 

The picture of my mom above was taken in her physiology class in October 1953. She showed it to me for the first time a few weeks ago, and I had one of those hit-me-over-the-head-with-a-brick moments. One woman, surrounded by men, in an overwhelmingly male-dominated environment. Score another point for me in the mom contest.

Fast forward 44 years to my search and rescue squadron at Naval Air Station Fallon, NV. This photo represents the typical scenario I found myself in throughout my Naval career, and I suspect most of my female Naval Academy classmates have similar photos.

My parents received quite a shock when I told them I wanted to go to the Naval Academy. But in hindsight, sprinting down the unbeaten path wasn’t anything new in my family. This move had my mom’s DNA written all over it. Fortunately, she passed down a good dose of humor and inner fortitude to go with it.