Brandi Hoeft didn't join the U.S. Navy to make a point about being a woman in a man's world -- the 20-year-old Rice Lake native knew she wanted to be in the military all her life.
But whether she originally intended to or not, Hoeft and a group of women on board the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt did make a statement this year. In what Navy officials say is likely a first for the 97,000-ton aircraft carrier, Hoeft and the rest of an all-female crew carried out the complicated and physically demanding job of catapult operations on the flight deck.
It's a feat for a sector of the military that comprises only 18 percent women overall, and even fewer in its aviation track.
"Some of the guys, they'd tell us, 'You're going to mess it up. You're not going to do it,'" Hoeft said from her perch on a coffee shop chair on Thursday in Rice Lake. "We told them, 'No, we are going to do it. We're strong. We can do this.' And we did."
Their attitudes changed once Hoeft and the 35-woman team made their goal a reality, she said. Completing that goal, however, took some work.
Pulling the parts together
The USS Theodore Roosevelt has four catapults that rest upon a more than 1,000-foot-long deck. Those catapults launch aircraft -- or "birds," as Hoeft calls them -- into the air to carry out missions.
The duties required to launch those aircrafts are numerous and complex, Hoeft said, and one must have proper certifications to carry them out. When the idea first began to circulate about an all-female catapult crew, there weren't enough women with the right qualifications.
Assembling the crew required shuffling people around and urging women to obtain the needed certifications, she said. Eventually a team of two catapult crews were assembled, and they took over operations for a day on Feb. 28 while the ship was in the Persian Gulf.
Esperanza Romero, work center supervisor for the USS Theodore Roosevelt's bow catapults, said having two catapult crews consisting of only women is, to the best of her knowledge, a first in the ship's 32-year history. She hopes the feat sends a positive message to women both in and out of the military.
"Our job isn't necessarily a glamorous one," Romero said. "We work late hours; we're usually dirty. But when you're on the outside looking in, it's something really spectacular when you see a group of females launching a Super Hornet off the flight deck."
"It's a stereotype that men are constantly doing all the big, heavy-duty jobs," she added. "That's not always the case. There are women going above and beyond and doing those same jobs, and doing it successfully."
'If you say you can, you will'
According to 2015 data from the U.S. Department of Defense, there were 264,065 men in the Navy compared with 59,269 women.
Being a woman in the Navy doesn't feel like a big deal to Hoeft, who says she's treated the same as her male counterparts.
"It's what I wanted to do," Hoeft said of joining the Navy, shrugging as she spoke. "It didn't matter there were more guys than girls because it's what I want."
When she first arrived at the USS Theodore Roosevelt last May, there were only a handful of women in her work station compared with about 30 men, Hoeft said. She said she isn't sure why there are so few women in the Navy and the aviation track especially, but she guessed some of it might be due to the risks of the field.
Working on the flight deck is dangerous business, she said, pointing to aircrafts' hot exhaust and head-height wings that can knock people over. Plus, the work involves physical strength and maintenance tasks that men are typically more used to performing, she said.
The all-female catapult crew didn't let that get in their way. Though admitting to some nerves, Hoeft said the day went off well. Her job was the same one she had for most of her seven-month deployment: Watching from the bow to make sure the track is clear ahead of a launch.
"We were a bit nervous about everything," Hoeft said of her crew. "We were being extra careful because this was our big moment. We didn't want anything to go wrong."
"Being able to say that I'm a part of this team is rewarding," she added. "I make a difference."
Hoeft hopes her story illustrates what women are capable of doing.
"Even though you are a woman, you can do the exact same thing a man can do, in anything," Hoeft said. "It doesn't have to be military related. If you say you can, you will."
This article is written by Lauren French from The Leader-Telegram and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.