Why did I choose to go into the military? While I wish I could share with you a patriotic story, unfortunately, I cannot. I was simply intrigued by the Navy.
My mom and I are immigrants. She was born in Jamaica and I was born in England. There was no one in my family who had served in any military nor was I exposed to others who were serving or had served.
So you wonder, where did the interest come from? It was simply curiosity, opportunity to receive the GI Bill and an affection for the uniform! Outside of what to pack, I told my recruiter not to tell me anything about the Navy.
From day one I was shocked. Then, there was the day I stood on the pier watching my ship pull into port and I said to myself, “What did I get myself into?” After the nervous tears when I saw the berthing space (sleeping quarters), I buckled down, worked hard and learned how to soak it all in. I had great tours, great mentors and was blessed with unbelievable opportunities.
I started my career as an electrician’s mate, but really didn’t work in my rate much. At that time, many, but not all women who served in mechanical/engineering ratings didn’t have much of an opportunity to practice the skills of their rating (job).
I remember reporting to the USS Canopus (AS-40) for a tour of duty and being told that I would not be working in the engineering department. For an electrician mate, our best on-the-job training comes from time in engineering. I begged the command master chief to assign me to the engineering department and was told that there was no job for me there.
He assigned me to the deck department, where I became the leading petting officer of 12 males. This is where I quickly learned how to be a leader! When I reflect on this, I always pause and think back to that conversation with the master chief in my mind. I left that ship with leadership skills that most people take decades to develop and on top of that, I earned a meritorious promotion to E6!
From 1996 to my retirement in 2010, life continued to be amazing. As a result of great mentors, I switched my enlisted careers to become a Navy career counselor. One day, not very long after being pinned as a chief petty officer, my commanding officer told me to consider applying for a commission. This would be my fourth try. I was so not interested in that!
I was enjoying the responsibilities of being a CPO, helping other sailors reach their dreams. I quietly let the deadline pass. To put it mildly, the skipper was extremely mad. Then, out of nowhere, the deadline was extended!
We were at a small duty station in Cornwall, England and we all knew each other and each other’s families. My skipper called my husband and told him I would be home late. He made me stay at work until I put my application packet together and turn it in. He didn’t just make me do it – he stayed at work until I completed the task.
Well, the rest of the story, as you can imagine, was that I was selected for a commission. I had reported to that duty station as an E6, was promoted to CPO (E-7) and left as an ensign (o-1). Only in a dream does this happen.
As a mustang officer, I soaked up every bit of knowledge about my new career field, medical service corps officer. MSCs are healthcare administrators in the Navy. I was blessed once again with great mentors and had a fabulous career as a Navy healthcare administrator, where I learned irreplaceable skills.
My career included earning two degrees, one bachelor’s and one master’s. I earned both of those degrees on the clock. My duty was to go to college. Yes, I was paid to go to school, not once, but twice! My stars aligned nicely, but I humbly admit that it wasn’t by coincidence. My mentors, tours and hard work really paid off and most importantly blessings.
Transitioning from military to civilian life was the tough part. My hair fell out. I went from having it flow down my back to a short length at the nape of my neck. It was nerving!
Despite preparing for approximately six years, it was extremely stressful. Please don’t misunderstand. I wasn’t simply focused on retiring for the last six years of my Naval career. I was increasing my knowledge of my profession from both the military and civilian standpoint. I earned certifications in my field and became active in the community, both in professional association and through volunteerism.
Regardless of that preparation, it was an experience, to say the least. At 40+ I wrote my first resume, interviewed for my first civilian job and was about to lose the security of a very comfortable salary.
Encouragement from friends, family and coworkers and prayers really helped me overcome the stress of transitioning. Also, making a list and checking it twice helped, seriously. When transitioning, there are so many resources shared with us from various agencies it is important to categorize them. Making that list really helped me to keep track of it all.
Breathing and reflecting was another way I personally overcame the stress. Self-doubt storms in the mind of the most prepared person at this time, it’s natural. We need to stop and think about our military careers and remind ourselves of the challenges we faced in such a male-dominated organization. In 2010, women represented 46 percent of the United States workforce. But in the military, we are a mere 14.5 percent of the active duty force. The fact that we, as women veterans, pursued the military demonstrates that we have the tenacity to take it on. If we can do that, what can’t we do? We need to remember this!
There are several pieces of advice I would give to any woman transitioning today.
- If you are just starting to prepare, you are late. Get moving! Any woman in the service who is even contemplating retiring needs to plan for that change. It’s better to have a screwdriver in your tool kit than to turn over that chair, dig in your bag and realize you don’t have one handy to adjust that leg.
- Be as independent as possible, but know when to dial a friend. If you don’t have that screwdriver, know when to dial a friend and get one. Don’t be ashamed, but make sure you are tapping into that resource at the right time. Think it through first and save your “silver bullets” until you absolutely need them!
To my surprise, I had three great job offers immediately upon retirement, but the stress didn’t simply go away. I took my job very personal. I am determined to ensure that our civilian colleagues recognize the value that military service members can bring to their organizations.
So far, I believe, if you were to ask my leadership team, they would say mission accomplished. It’s tough to transition, regardless of if you served 20 years or four years. Preparation is key. Listening to everyone (some more than others), tapping into all resources available and not underestimating connections and the networking that goes along with all of that is critical.
I tell everyone I owe everything to the Navy! I earned two degrees, acquired one Navy hubby (21 years strong), had two boys that cost me around $15.00 each (back then you only had to pay for your meal in the hospital), bought homes with VA loans and there is so much more.
When I joined the Navy, the recruiting slogan was, “It’s not just a job, It’s an adventure.” They weren’t lying! Thanks Navy. Thanks Mentors. Thanks Shipmates. I am forever indebted.