Progress begins with possibilities: the dream of reaching unimaginable heights, consequently setting the stage for success and making life a little more manageable for those who follow in our footsteps. Progress ends, when we become complacent and disengage a little too quickly satisfied by our own individual successes. Progress ends, when we feel that we have come far enough even though we have not yet reached our final destination.
Women in American have made progress. In part, thanks to the women in this room, who dared to dream of a meaningful career of service in the United States military. The women who dared to stand on the yellow footprints at Parris Island. The women who bravely walked through the gates of uncertainty to integrate the Service Academies. And the women who chose to lead by example, risking it all, sometimes to the detriment of their career.
And we continue to make progress. Largely thanks the women who continue to dare to hold their heads high and stare into the face of racism, sexism, and misogyny. I stand before you today, as living proof of our progress. As a point in time reference, of this moment along our historic journey.
A few generations ago, I would have been forced to serve in a segregated military. As integration, specifically the integration of African Americans, like myself, was charachterized as a threat to unit cohesion and readiness.
Less than 40 years ago, I would have been denied entry into the Naval Academy. As the integration of women was charachterized as a threat to unit cohesion and readiness.
Less than 4 years ago, I would have been discharged for standing on this stage and telling you that I am a lesbian. As the voluntary service of out lesbians, and all other members of the LGBT community was characterized as a threat to unit cohesion and readiness.
Although it has been slow at times, we have made progress. We have stepped up to the challenges and exceeded all expectations. We have proven those who doubted our abilities wrong. We have allayed fears and battled mischaracterizations to afford women more and more opportunities to serve.
We have made progress. And we have done that together by showing up for each other in a various capacities: by making ourselves visible, or by actively participating in the development of our younger troops or by being honest about what it will take for the next generation of women to succeed. I can tell you for certain, I am on this stage today, because I had women show up for me throughout my career.
I’m from a small town in Southern Ohio. Not exactly a recruiter’s dream duty station. We had a National Guard Armory in town, but the closest military base was 125 miles away.
I learned the basics of military life from Hollywood. Initially, I saw myself as “Maverick” from the movie Top Gun. Much to my parents’ dismay, my Saturn S Series coupe doubled as an F-14. I envisioned my time at the Naval Academy filled with beach volleyball matches and antics with fellow jet jockeys. Perfect! But, what I didn’t realize, at that time, women weren’t permitted to fly F-14 in the Navy. Thanks Hollywood.
As I became more familiar with realities of military culture, I realized that Hollywood's portrayal of military life wasn't always accurate but they did teach us to envision the art of the possible for our future.
Naturally, I also looked to the movie G.I. Jane. Now, I knew women weren’t permitted to serve in the Navy SEALS. But the movie challenged me to envision a time when women attend SEAL training, compete on an even playing field and are judged on their merit, not their gender or sexuality.
I incorpated this idea into my new vision. I knew that I wanted to challenge myself to see if I was capable of filling a role in this new vision. So I traded in my high speed Saturn for a pair of running shoes and I hit the pavement.
My basketball coach doubled as my first drill sergeant. She took me on training runs through the streets of our town. Well, I was the only one running. She rode her bike, and I tried my best to keep pace. She made me do sit-ups off the edge of her deck until I could barely move. My coach didn’t have a military background, but she understood the challenges that I had ahead of me simply because I was a woman. She did what she could to prepare me to live in world where I had to constantly be at the top of my game in order to succeed.
When I arrived in Annapolis for my freshman year, I was lucky enough to be assigned to the 26th Company under the leadership of Marine Corps Captain Katie McSheffrey. Captain MCSheffrey was the first Marine Corps officer that I met and certainly the first female Marine that I had ever seen. She was a combat engineer; a fierce but fair leader. She was hands-off and entrusted the Junior’s in our company with the majority of the freshmen training responsibilities. She took a passive role in my training, and a direct role in my development as a future military officer. Her presence alone was enough to open my mind to other career possibilities.
Capt McSheffrey became my first military possibility model. A possibility model is a person or an idea that opens our eyes to the possibilities in our own lives. I never considered a career as a Marine Corps officer, mainly, because I had never seen, let alone met a Marine Corps officer that looked like me. But I knew if it was a possibility for Katie McSheffrey, then it could also be a possibility for me. We are all possibility models. There is merit in being visible, capable, and productive leaders. And sometimes our presence is all it takes to influence the men and women around us.
During my junior and senior years in Annapolis I was lucky enough to have a second strong female Marine Corps Captain shape my development as a future officer. Captain Jennifer Kenney was a Naval Academy graduate herself. She was always willing to share her Academy and Marine Corps experiences with her students: from story of how she ripped her ring finger from her hand during her freshmen year in Annapolis, to the tales of plain clothes operations in Bosnia.
Her interest in my development only began with story sharing. Captain Kennedy recognized that my success as a Marine Corps Officer was critical. It was six months after September 11th, 2001 and Captain Kennedy understood that the Marine Corps needed the best trained and most capable officer corps to lead the mission ahead.
She took it upon herself to personally train anyone who needed help passing the Obstacle Course, a graded event, that too often meant certain failure for a small group of new lieutenants at the Marine Corps’ Basic School. She gave up her nights and weekends and made herself available to anyone who wanted extra training. I took advantage of that training. I struggled climbing the rope. I was of the mindset that brute upper body strength would set me free. Captain Kennedy taught me that it was actually about good technique. She was right and I made it up the rope every time after her instruction.
Like Captain McSheffrey, Captain Kennedy was visible, but more importantly she was participatory. She recognized that she and the Marine Corps had a vested interest in my success, as I was about to lead Marines during one of the most uncertain times in our nation’s history. And like it or not, she knew that her success and, dare I say, her reputation as a female Marine officer was directly tied to my success. Failure was not an option. Especially for something that was preventable like climbing the rope on the obstacle course. Captain Kennedy recognized that and did what she knew she had to do to increase the probability of my success.
She was a role model, which is different than a possibility model. She modeled the behaviors that taught me how to be a good leader. We can’t abdicate our responsibilities as role models. It is imperative that we play an active role ensuring the success of others, especially other women.
After graduation I realized just how lucky I was to have been trained by two strong female Captains. As began my service in the Marine Operating Forces I quickly realized that not all units had female officers or senior enlisted.
I was assigned to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, here in San Diego. I chuckled at the irony of being stationed at Miramar, the former home Navy Top Gun. I was THIS close to the life beach volleyball and jet jockeys.
Midway through my tour of duty, Major Sarah Deal was assigned as our Squadron’s Executive Officer. Unbeknownst to me, Major Deal was the first female selected to attend naval aviation training and subsequently the Marine Corps’ first female aviator. She spoke with me about her experience as the first female in flight school and the cold reception she continually received from her peers in the aviation community. I was surprised by her candor, and I appreciated hearing an unfiltered version of the realities associated with breaking new ground and rising through the ranks. Sometimes it is not enough to be visible or participatory. Sometimes we need women, like Major Deal, who are not only willing to step up and take a calculated risks to open the doors to opportunity for all of us but are also willing to tell the unadulterated truth about their experience.
Sugar coating our experiences does not benefit anyone, especially as we ask more and more women to push themselves to new limits. Recognizing the challenges ahead and describing the pitfalls associated with breaking new ground should not be a deterrent. It should be part of our obligation to properly train our troops for the mission at hand.
Although the responsibility of setting the stage for success and training our next generation of women warriors begins with us, it is not our responsibility alone. We must insist that our male counterparts take an active role in our journey.
We have made progress, a considerable amount in the last decade, but I hope we would all agree that we haven’t yet reached our final destination. We must define our success by setting our expectations higher and looking beyond the art of the possible: To a military, a nation, and a world where women’s ambitions are not only a possibility, they are a reality.
The future role of women in the military, and in America, is being scrutinized at all levels, debated on the evening news, and discussed at the dinner table. We have to participate in those debates and discussions, and we have to encourage our male counterparts to do the same.
Now is the time. Our future and the future of the next generation of women depends on our willingness to play an active role in defining a vision where women have every opportunity to succeed. A vision where every operational billet is open to the women who are qualified, with no exceptions A vision where promotion is based on merit and a vision where women feel safe reporting incidents of sexual assault without fear of retaliation.
Now is the time, maybe more so than ever, for our expert opinions to be considered and our voices heard. It is equally important for us to continue to show up for each other.
So I ask you: what is your vision for the future and how will you choose to show up for the next generation?
Will you make yourself visible like Captain McSheffrey? Your presence alone can be powerful enough to open their eyes to a host of new possibilities in their careers.
Will you be participatory like Captain Kennedy? You have a vested interest in the success of these young women. Take them on training runs. Teach them how to do pull ups. Take time out of your nights and weekends to increase the probability of their long term success.
Or will you take a risk for the greater good like Major Deal? By stepping forward to face uncertainty and willingly accepting the consequences of your success or failure.
Remember to take pride in our progress. We have come a long way. But please keep in mind that our journey is not over. The possibilities for women in our military are endless and with your help we will get there, together.