Three top female service officials said the sea services and military can provide great opportunities for women and minorities, but more work needs to be done to encourage those people to join the armed forces and help them meet their goals once inside.
“I think it’s really important for us to recognize the value and significance of the leadership opportunities that we get in the military and in the Department of Defense as civilians, at a much more junior age, much younger than our civilian counterparts ever would,” said Vice Adm. Nancy Norton, who retired as vice director of the Defense Information Systems Agency and commander of the Joint Force Heaquarters Department of Defense Information Network after a 34-year career.
“What we want to do, as women, is be great leaders, just like any man or woman in the military, and look for opportunities to better enable men and women across the board in all leadership opportunities,” she said.
Norton spoke on the “Women and Warfare” session as part of the Sea-Air-Space 2021 Prequel, along with Rear Adm. Melissa Bert, judge advocate general for the U.S. Coast Guard, and Col. Kelly Frushour, deputy director of the Communications Directorate at Marine Corps headquarters.
All the women said they weren’t expecting to make a career of it when they joined the military, but once inside what kept them going were the opportunities and the people.
“I never actually made a conscious decision to stay in the Navy, I just kept doing things that I loved, and the Navy kept giving me opportunities to do new things and to see new places, to go places I would never have had the opportunity to experience,” Norton said.
Bert joined the Coast Guard at a time when it was only 10 percent female and did two tours on ships where she was the only woman on board. That helped her decide she didn’t want a seagoing career, so the Coast Guard sent her to law school.
“Through a lot of great friends and mentors and coaches, I just stayed with it, and it’s been fun. My closest friends are in the Coast Guard and I met my husband, who is not in the Coast Guard, but I met him through the coast guard, so it’s just a second family to me, that’s why I stayed,” Bert said. “It wasn’t even the mission as much as the people.”
Frushour said she was an Air Force brat who attended a “hail and farwell” ceremony at the U.S. embassy in Norway, her father’s last posting, for a departing Marine and his replacement.
For the new arrival, “it didn’t seem like a start over for him, it seemed like he had moved into a new family, into a new group of friends. As a military brat who had grown up all over the place, that really stayed with me. What a great thing, to be able to join an organization that is doing good work, to be able to serve my country, be able to travel, and wherever you go, you’re just joining friends and family that are already there.”
Norton said the military really is a meritocracy, and “frankly, one of the reasons I’ve loved being in the military is from the time I started I’ve always felt like the military has led society in diversity and equality in many, many ways … If you work hard and are dedicated to the people and the mission, you can be successful, and I think it’s important that we in the military, and those of us who are retired and continue to influence the Department of Defense, continue to make it a leader in our social change and social justice across the board.”
However, changes still need to be made, Bert said.
“We still have model, because it was formed by men, we have a model that is for a stay at home person, whether it’s a husband or wife, who’s raising the kids, we don’t really acknowledge that having a family is part of most people’s lives,” Bert said. “It should not be a choice … either six years at sea as a SWO [surface warfare officer] and then deciding, I can’t have this lifestyle, or just moving all the time.”
That model is “a great way to drive out really talented people, not just women. It’s not a lifestyle choice [where] we’re going to get the best in American society. … We need to start listening to women and underrepresented minorities and look at ways we can change.”