Navy women reach new heights

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010; B03

The submarine school in Groton, Conn., will include 19 women this year, the first group since the Navy lifted its ban on women serving on submarines.

On Thursday, the Navy reached another milestone, when women swept the annual Sailor of the Year awards for the first time.

Their achievement was marked by meritorious promotions to chief petty officer in a ceremony at the Navy Memorial in Washington, with their families and commanders proudly looking on as chief's anchors were penned to the lapels of their khakis. The four sailors of the year were chosen from the enlisted fleet of 273,226. Every year they are feted in Washington, whisked with their families from museum to monument during a week of kudos and congratulations from Navy brass.

This year, though, history was made -- and the pride was palpable.

"It's almost like the sky's the limit," said Chief Hospital Corpsman Ingrid J. Cortez, 32, who just returned to Virginia Beach from a two-year deployment on the amphibious assault ship Bataan. "We no longer have obstacles for women."

The sailors were chosen for their overall performance and leadership, Navy officials said.

Since the first sailors of the year were honored in 1972, women occasionally have risen to the top of a pile culled from hundreds of nominations submitted by the fleet, officials said. But today's commanders described the ascension of Cortez, Chief Operations Specialist Samira McBride, Chief Hospital Corpsman Shalanda L. Brewer and Chief Cryptologic Technician Technical Cassandra Foote as a product of women's integration in the fleet that deepened in 1993. That's when female sailors began serving on surface warships and combat aircraft.

"What we're seeing this year is the benefits of that change," said Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations. "For four women to rise to the top is extraordinarily unusual."

In June, Rear Adm. Nora Tyson became the first woman to command a carrier strike group, and Cmdr. Sara Joyner became the first to head a carrier air wing.

"That's the centerpiece of combat capability in the Navy," Roughead said.

Special forces remain the only role closed to Navy women.

Cortez, McBride, Brewer and Foote are rising in an active-duty and reserve fleet in which enlisted women make up 16.4 percent and officers 15.8 percent, according to Navy data.

Like all women who want to balance a career and children, these sailors face challenges, such as being stationed at sea. But two of this year's honorees have children, who pinned their mothers' anchors on Thursday.

Cortez, who is divorced, hates to be away from her sons, ages 10 and 3. "But I explain to them it's for a great cause," she said.

Foote's 7-year-old son wants to be in the Navy. "If I can be a good role model, that will mean a lot," she said.

Foote, 27, grew up in Vergennes, Vt., and works in electronic warfare, intercepting radar signals. She followed in the path of her uncle, a retired Navy cryptologist. The field is a relatively obscure corner of the Navy, she said, but she loves it. Now stationed in Pensacola, Fla., she's two semesters shy of a bachelor's degree in fitness management, a field she hopes to pursue whenever she retires from the Navy.

Brewer, 29, a Navy reservist and radiologic technologist at two local hospitals in St. Louis, spent the last year on an expeditionary medical unit in Landstuhl, Germany. She said she wants to make mentoring junior sailors a priority. "My main goal is to give back," Brewer said.

McBride's dream of a Navy career started a world away in N'Djamena, Chad, where she grew up.

McBride's father was an American Peace Corps volunteer in the African country, and fell in love with and married her Chadian mother. Their five children all serve in the U.S. military. McBride is fluent in English, Arabic, French and her mother's Chadian dialect. Growing up, the McBride children loved Fourth of July celebrations at the U.S. Embassy, where they watched the Marine Corps detachment present the colors.

"We were always fascinated and inspired by the ceremonies," she said. Eventually, McBride, 30, wants to become a lawyer and return to Chad as a judge. For now, she is assigned to the destroyer Lassen.

Her fellow honorees are just as ambitious. Cortez and Foote have their sights set on the Navy's highest enlisted rank, master chief petty officer, otherwise known as MCPON.

"One day, that's what I want to be," Cortez said.

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