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.