Thursday, September 06, 2007

Twenty-Year Reunion at Annapolis

What do a commanding officer of a guided missile warship, an airline pilot, a medical doctor, an astronaut and a homeschooling mother of ten have in common? We're all in the sixth class of women to graduate from the United States Naval Academy.

We entered the naval service in July, 1981; a typically hot, humid day in Annapolis, Maryland. Most of the 1200 new midshipmen shared traits of idealism, patriotism and a desire to serve. The nearly one hundred women who entered that day shared something else we didn't yet realize. We would have to prove ourselves as deserving a place at the Academy when many, if not most, of our male classmates saw us as parasites, stealing the place of a young man who should have been there.

We weren't the first to face such trials. The first women were appointed to the service academies in 1976 by act of Congress and against the wishes of most senior officers. In these modern times, so the argument went, women could be just as effective technical Cold War warriors as men. The funny thing is, most proponents of feminism who petitioned to open the academies to women weren't the sort who'd actually want their daughters (or sons) to fight for their country in uniform. We few women were in the strange position of being both patriot and pariah.

I was a small-town girl from Colorado. I graduated from Del Norte High School in the San Luis Valley. Life at the Naval Academy was as opposite from my experience as possible. There were times when I wondered if I'd made the right decision to leave Colorado and a four-year Boettcher scholarship for a nine-year commitment to the Navy. But due to stubbornness, pride, or sheer determination, I wasn't about to quit.

Nearly eighty women made it to graduation in 1985. We didn't think we made history, we were just thankful to finally realize the dream of graduation. We went our separate ways. We went to drive ships, lead Marines, fly jets, communicate over satellites and more, all over the globe. Some of us completed our required service and left to pursue civilian careers, or motherhood, or both. Some of us retired after twenty years and command at sea. Some of us still serve, and one flew a mission on the space shuttle. Captain Lisa Nowak (no relation), achieved some amazing things before she became internationally infamous.

I met up with some of these remarkable women at our twentieth reunion a couple of years ago. They're smart, successful, beautiful women and I'm honored to call them classmates. It was wonderful to reconnect after twenty years, to meet husbands and to see pictures of kids. Unfortunately, none of us thought to organize a mini-reunion or even a picture with just the women. We realized we were still trying so hard to be one of the guys and not rock the boat, that it was hard to understand we didn't have to play by those rules anymore.

Only once during our four years at the Academy did we pose for a group picture. The women who cut our hair requested a picture of each class, starting with the first class of women in 1980. We had our picture taken shortly before graduation, and it joined the five earlier photos they had displayed in the women's beauty shop. The picture shows sixty-two of the seventy-six graduates in front of the chapel. The sun is shining brightly on a beautiful spring day and we're young and full of hope for the future. (Lisa Nowak, the astronaut, is fourth from the left in the front row. I feel so terrible for her and what she and her family must be going through. Something in this remarkable woman cracked and there but for the grace of God go you or I. Oh, and I'm the sixth one from the left in the front row.) I would love to have another group photo taken. Maybe we'll do it at our next reunion.

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