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.