Tomorrow Adm. Elmo Zumwalt will be laid to rest at the Naval Academy. In late 1972, as the Chief of Naval Operations, this remarkable man changed my life and untold others forever. More important, he changed the Navy, and hence the nation, for the better.
As part of a concerted effort to adjust to the end of conscription and to major societal changes, Adm. Zumwalt decided to open Navy pilot training to women. My mother, a World War II Navy nurse, sent me a newspaper article announcing the Navy was looking for qualified female candidates. As a 19-year-old undergraduate and pilot, I could hardly believe my eyes. I decided I was not going to miss this historic opportunity.
With the help of many people, I managed to graduate from college early, and in January 1973 was one of the first eight women selected to enter naval flight training. I had no intention of staying in uniform past my obligated time. I ended up retiring after 24 years of exciting, challenging and gratifying service.
It is hard to remember, let alone imagine, for someone who didn't experience it, how anti-military this country was coming out of the Vietnam War. Growing up in the ultimate Navy town of San Diego, I had high school memories that included the sight of a blimp flying over the city with a message demanding that the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk "Stay Home." There were reports of race riots aboard Navy ships, high desertion rates, criminal conduct and generally low morale. Retention bottomed out at 9 percent. Even on Purdue University's conservative campus, my joining the Navy equated to becoming a "baby killer" in the eyes of some classmates.
After reporting for officer candidate school, I began to realize how controversial Adm. Zumwalt was. Like most of my peers drawn from civilian schools, I knew nothing about Navy life, let alone service politics. The whole institution seemed stuck in a time and cultural warp.
Yet it was clear this CNO faced both an age and seniority gap: He was seemingly despised by the most senior officers and respected by the most junior ones; hated by chief petty officers who were known for handling disciplinary problems with their fists, but loved by newly empowered sailors.
His unambiguous leadership in improving the Navy's lousy race relations was a source of discontent among the good old white boys. The "Z-grams"--directives sent to the entire Navy from the CNO himself rather than through the admirals--that made my presence in flight training possible were the subject of open derision and were actively opposed by some serving officers. Their behavior was unprofessional, shameful amd contrary to Navy tradition.
Adm. Zumwalt retired in June 1974, shortly after I earned my gold wings. While in flight training, I had no time for anything other than learning the ways of naval aviation, so I missed most of what he was doing during the year our service overlapped. A true professional, in retirement he refrained from "laying a hand on the rudder from the grave"; he shared his opinions with serving naval leadership only behind closed doors, not in the press.
It wasn't until I became a middle- grade officer that I fully appreciated just what he had achieved and at what tremendous personal cost. While I personally benefited from his decision to use more women, Adm. Zumwalt's most significant accomplishments lay in forcing the naval aristocracy to control rampant racial discrimination while preparing the Navy to "fight" the Cold War under harsh post-Vietnam fiscal constraints and the realities of an all-volunteer force.
Years ago I found a cartoontitled "Old Guard Bar and Grill." Sitting at the bar were two admirals crying in their beer above the caption, "If God had wanted women at the Naval Academy, he would have made them men!" Like Adm. Zumwalt, other naval reformers have faced similar intellectually shallow opposition in their attempts to improve the lot of sailors, revolutionize shipboard gunnery, adopt the aircraft carrier and herald the nuclear fleet.
Like many wonderful but human institutions, the Navy would never have altered course toward racial equality nor manned the fleet with the best-qualified male and female citizen-sailors under its own momentum. Adm. Zumwalt's methods, however unpopular, were the only way to cast off old lines and allow the Navy to steam into the future. In my mind's eye, I see the always dignified admiral elbowing up to a heavenly Old Guard Bar and taking his seat as one of history's truly great Americans and naval leaders. Cheers and thanks, Admiral.
Capt. Rosemary Mariner, a retired naval aviator, is a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee's Center for the Study of War and Society.