Navy Carriers Celebrate 25 Years of Gender-Integrated Crews

Lt. j.g. Riza Suriben looks out as the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) pulls out of Naval Station Norfolk. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Darion Chanelle Triplett)
Lt. j.g. Riza Suriben looks out as the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) pulls out of Naval Station Norfolk. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Darion Chanelle Triplett)

ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN -- As an EA-18G Growler approached the flight deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln, up on the bridge, Lt. Riza Suriben called out for a slight adjustment to the ship's rudder. After it was made, and with her eyes never leaving the incoming aircraft, she calmly ordered: "Steady as she goes."

The Growler caught the first cable, completing flight operations for the morning. And Suriben allowed herself to smile for the first time that day.

"Sometimes you forget the bigger picture -- you get into a routine, the daily grind," she said. "But then we have visitors up here and they are so excited, and you remember, 'Hey, wait, my job is actually pretty cool.'"

As women make inroads into military ground combat positions previously closed to them, one naval community is celebrating a milestone in gender-integrated operations: 25 years ago this week, the Navy ordered the first assignment of women to a combat ship. Sixty-three women were detailed to the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower, homeported in Norfolk, Virginia.

To the Abraham Lincoln Strike Group, the idea of all-male units or ships is unthinkable. Hardly any member of the crew of more than 6,000 remembers gender-restricted ships, except for the most senior officers and enlisted personnel.

According to Vice Adm. Andrew "Woody" Lewis, commander of the Navy's 2nd Fleet, diversity in age, gender, race and religion strengthen a ship or squadron's lethality.

"It's a meritocracy. It's an environment where all walks of life come on and serve in the military. It should be reassuring and refreshing and really makes you feel proud to be a part of this organization," Lewis said during an interview with reporters in late January.

Women make up roughly 19 percent of the U.S. Navy, and those serving on ships operate in an environment where they can excel based on ability and opportunities are unrestricted.

For example, Vice Adm. Lisa Franchetti commands the U.S. Sixth Fleet while Vice Adm. Mary Jackson leads Navy Installations Command. Fleet Master Chief April Beldo, who retired in 2017, was the first black female command master chief of an aircraft carrier, the Carl Vinson.

Lt. Cmdr. Jennifer Hesling is an F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot currently assigned to Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, she deployed onboard the carrier Harry S. Truman with Strike Fighter Squadron 32 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. In her nearly 11-year career, she has not encountered any negative bias on the basis of gender, she said.

"I have served my country with wonderful men and women next to me. Most of my mentors have been men, encouraging me to fly fighter jets and to excel," she said. "I never felt like I'm not part of a team because I'm a woman."

And, she added, thanks to women like Capt. Rosemary Mariner, one of the Navy's first female fighter pilots and the first woman to command a naval aviation squadron, she is accepted on the basis of her qualifications.

"I am grateful for those who opened doors for us because it allowed me to join naval aviation, without ever questioning whether I could or could not be a part of this community because of my gender," Hesling said.

Sailors onboard Abraham Lincoln have experienced first-hand what it's like to work with a trailblazer. Capt. Amy Bauernschmidt recently left the ship after working for two years as the executive officer, the first female XO of a nuclear carrier.

According to an interview with CBS News, the 24-year veteran lives by a motto given to her by her mother: Never pass up an opportunity to grow.

"There are a lot of times in life that you're a little nervous or afraid to do something, 'cause you think you're gonna fail. Well, so what? I mean ... what's the worst that's gonna happen if I fail?" Bauernschmidt told CBS. "You know, if you fail, you get up and you may realize in that failure that what you're really meant to do is something else."

In December 2015, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that all military occupations and positions would be open to women, without exception. The decision freed up 220,000 more jobs for women, from Marine Corps ground combat billets such as infantry and artillery to Army Rangers, special operations, Air Force pararescue jumpers and more.

For women in these physically challenging billets, the path has not been easy, and integration efforts have been slow. Of the services, the Army has seen the most success, with roughly 800 women serving in previously closed combat billets. As of November, the Marine Corps had 151 female Marines in previously restricted military occupational specialties, including one infantry officer and 16 female enlisted personnel. The Air Force currently has one woman in Tactical Air Control Party training, on the pathway to become the first female battlefield airman, but no women have made it through pararescue training. And no women have become Navy SEALs.

Lt. Emily Rixey, an F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot who deployed onboard the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush in support of Operation Inherent Resolve and is now assigned to Strike Fighter Weapons School Atlantic, encourages women to keep trying.

"If you have the drive and dedication, leave gender out of the equation and keep going for it," she said.

Rixey and Hesling had the honor of participating Feb. 2 in the first all-female flyover, a historic tribute to Mariner, who died Jan. 24.

Being in the ready room with seven other female fighter pilots -- and no men -- was "really odd," Rixey said, but "so awesome."

"We were laughing about it because we'd never seen that before. The energy was great," she said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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