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?

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