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.

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