A Growing Constellation of Stars on Shoulders

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Navy photo / Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Stride

Back in 2009, two of the Navy's newest three-star officers in Bahrain: Rear Admiral Carol Pottenger, commander, Naval Expeditionary Combat Command (right), and Rear Admiral Michelle Howard, commander, Expeditionary Strike Group Two.

Back in February, I noted that a second woman had been selected to wear the four stars of a General Officer. I also predicted that  a four-star Navy admiral would be a long time coming. Well! The Navy is much closer to promoting a woman to the most senior rank in the U.S. military — as the Army and Air Force already have done — now that the sea service has promoted three officers to the three-star rank of vice admiral. This brings the total Navy women at that rank to four, the most ever.

Vice Admiral Carol Pottenger remains the most senior Navy woman, having served since 1977.

She is currently the deputy chief of staff for Capability Development at NATO’s office for Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, in Norfolk, Va. I must admit I had to look up this command on line. It is “NATO’s leading agent for change, driving, facilitating, and advocating continuous improvement of Alliance capabilities to maintain and enhance the military relevance and effectiveness of the Alliance.” 

That means her new office works with all 28 of NATO’s member nations to ensure cooperation, coordination and support, propose transformative changes in tactics and strategy, and conduct training to those ends. NATO is a huge organization, but I’m sure Vice Admiral Pottenger will make her mark there.

One of the women I predicted would be promoted to three stars has done so…now-Vice Admiral Michelle Howard is serving as Deputy Commander, United States Fleet Forces Command, also in Norfolk. She’s second only to Admiral William E. Gortney, a naval aviator.

Fleet Forces Command  “provides responsive, relevant, sustainable Naval forces ready-for-tasking” to combatant commanders — the actual war-fighters — worldwide. Vice Admiral Howard is a surface warfare officer who commanded USS Rushmore (LSD-47).  She also commanded Amphibious Squadron Seven where she deployed in support of tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia (2004) and maritime security operations in the north Arabian Gulf.  In 2009 she commanded Task Force 151, a multi-national counter piracy effort, when Captain Richard Phillips was rescued from Somali pirates. Michelle is a 1982 graduate of the Naval Academy, and with five years left until mandatory retirement, she still has a chance at that elusive 4th star.

A third woman, Vice Admiral Robin Braun, is the new head of the 65,000-strong Naval Reserve. Taking command in August of this year, she is the first female leader of the Naval Reserve, and the first for the reserve component of any service.

She was commissioned in 1980 via Officer Candidate School, became a naval aviator in 1981, and subsequently logged over 5,800 flight hours in naval aircraft, in missions that not only delivered Navy SEALS for special operations, but also moved sailors and supplies to destinations as diverse as the Greenland tundras and Malaysian jungles.

She is one of only five women aviators to be promoted to flag rank. She commanded VR-48, a reserve squadron  at the Naval Air Facility, Washington D.C. She also commanded other units, most particularly Navy Reserve Carrier Strike Group 10 on board the USS Harry S Truman (CVN 75) which supported Hurricane Katrina relief operations in 2005.

A fourth woman, Vice Admiral Nanette M. (Nan) DeRenzi, became the first female JAG of the Navy in August. This makes her the principal military legal counsel to the secretary of the Navy and chief of naval operations. She also serves as the Department of Defense’s representative for ocean policy affairs. She leads the 2,300 attorneys, enlisted legalmen, and civilian employees of the worldwide Navy JAG Corps.

Mentoring has been a passion for all of these remarkable women. They realize that Navy women need senior female mentors and leaders to guide them in their careers. Although the opportunities for women are greater than they were 30 years ago when these women entered the Navy, career paths for women are still fraught with obstacles.

Of the 286 ships in the Navy, only 203 have women assigned, and 67 of those are officer-only. Sure women can be assigned to any ship as long as there is berthing available and, for enlisted women, the rating is needed.  So mentoring is needed to ensure the women understand how to navigate that system.

All of these women have been there, done that, and are at the place where they are now role models for all to follow. Congratulations to them all.