Women in the United States Navy: 3 CEC officers share their perspectives through thoughts, recollections, philosophies, and advice

(By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jonathan Carmichael)

Capt. Kathryn A. Donovan

“Don’t put false barriers in your way.”  Consider those words of wisdom from U.S. Navy Commander Lore Aguayo, a 1993 graduate of Civil Engineer Corps Officers’ School (CECOS) and one of many service members consistently proving that women do belong in the U.S. Military. 

Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) officers are the engineers and architects of the Navy.  They work in construction management, public works, and with the Seabees.  The term Seabee spawned from CB, the abbreviation for construction battalion.

Cmdr. La Tanya E. Simms

Seabees make up the Naval Construction Force which consists of Construction Battalion Maintenance Units, Underwater Construction Teams, Amphibious Construction Battalions, and Naval Mobile Construction Battalions (NMCB).

Experts at construction, and trained, armed, and prepared to defend themselves when necessary, Seabees take pride in their motto, “we build; we fight.”  Historically Seabees have engaged in combat on multiple occasions since their inception in 1942.  They currently put themselves in harm’s way in support of the war in Afghanistan while constructing roads, drilling for water, building forward operating bases, and engineering bridges in direct support of U.S. and allied forces.

Cmdr. Lore Aguayo

Additionally, Seabees epitomize the Navy’s slogan, “America’s Navy: A global force for good” and win hearts and minds by building schools and medical facilities, and conducting worldwide humanitarian missions.

According to Navy Personnel Command, the 1,090 enlisted women in the Navy’s construction force account for 2.4 percent of all enlisted women in the Navy while 123 of the Navy’s female officers, only 1.4 percent, are in the Civil Engineer Corps.

120213-N-UH337-035 HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan (February 13, 2012) Commander Lore Aguayo (left), Commanding officer of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 11 officially relieves Cmdr. La Tany Simms, commanding officer of NMCB 4, of the watch during a ceremony in which NMCB 4 transferred authority of Camp Krutke, a part of Camp Leatherneck to NMCB 11. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jonathan Carmichael / Released)

In February, Aguayo, who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and grew up in Tempe, Ariz. deployed to Afghanistan in command of NMCB-11 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.  Aguayo’s battalion relieved NMCB-4, commanded by fellow CECOS Class of ’93 colleague, Commander La Tanya E. Simms, originally from Fort Myers, Fla.

That was the first time in history that both of the NMCBs involved in a transfer of authority were commanded by women.

In 18 ½-years as CEC officers, they have seen women’s roles in the military expand along with broadened acceptance among service members for the women filling those roles.  When they attended CECOS, NMCBs were not open to women. 

It wasn’t until President Bill Clinton signed the Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 1994 that those assignments were open to women.  It also made significant progress in opening military positions for women on combatant ships and fighter aircraft.

At that time in 1994, CEC officer and Naval Academy graduate, Capt. Kathryn A. Donovan, who was then Lt. Kathryn A. Allen, had been in the Navy for seven years.  Donovan, a native of Smyrna, Ga., serves as Commodore of the 22nd Naval Construction Regiment and exercises operational control of NMCB-11 and NMCB-7 in Afghanistan.

Donovan has the distinction of being the first CEC officer, regardless of gender, to command a detainee internment facility, which she did in Iraq.  Now commanding in Afghanistan, she is the first female CEC officer to command in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  In 2008 Donovan became the sixth female CEC officer to obtain the rank of Captain. 

Commodore Kathryn Donovan gives a coin to IT2 (SW/EXW) Travis McCurty in Afghanistan while other members of his department look on. (U.S. Navy photo by MCC Jason Carter)

“There have been tons of women that went before us, and that’s why we are where we are,” stated Donovan.

One common philosophy these women share is that a person’s gender should not be a factor in evaluating job performance or qualifications when it comes to military assignments and positions in the chain of command.

“You know it’s those opportunities where if we, the U.S., don’t lead in that way – in selecting people who are right for the job at any given time, and get over ourselves about what will other countries or people think, then we’re not living up to the ideals that our country’s forefathers have laid out for us,” said Simms.

“When we came in and battalions opened up to women there were no standards lowered.  We had to do everything everybody else did.  We had to qualify in every way that everybody else had to qualify; and, guess what – no big deal,” stated Aguayo.

In an interview prior to the transfer of authority from NMCB-4 to NMCB-11 in Afghanistan, Aguayo recounted the following story.

“I went into the battalion the first time not knowing what I was getting myself into.  It was a different world.  It’s different doing a public works job or a contract management job than being with the bees; clearly.  I worked very hard.  I had great senior enlisted who mentored me and other officers that took me under their wing.  Thanks to them and a lot of hard work, my first tour in a battalion went pretty well. 

“Actually, I was the Air Det OIC.  I don’t know if they’d ever selected a woman because I was one of the very first women to go in, so I don’t know that there had been a female Air Det OIC.  On my first deployment we went to PACOM, and a requirement emerged to send a detachment to a country in the south Pacific for an exercise.

“My C.O. selected me to be in charge of the detachment that was going.  Apparently there were some closed door discussions about sending me as the OIC of this particular detachment. 

“I remember my S3 came up to me and he said ‘the brigade is a little concerned about sending you, as a female, to be in charge of this group.’  I said, well, why.  And he said ‘well you know the locals can be kind of macho, and they’re just a little concerned that it might be a little too much for you.’ 

“And I looked at him and I said, ‘you know, Sir that I’m from Mexico, right?’  He goes, ‘well of course.’  And I said, ‘do you know where the word ‘macho’ came from?  It’s from Mexico.  It’s a term we developed there.’  I said, I know how to deal with macho men.  I’m not worried about that.’ 

“But it was breaking new ground, and I was selected for the job.  I thank my C.O., Capt. Barrett at the time, who had a lot of confidence in me and he did put me in those positions – I’m sure against other people’s advice – but he opened up those opportunities.  He thought I was the right person for it, and I’m very grateful for him being a more forward thinker and not succumbing necessarily to some of the pressures that he may have received. 

“After two years I left the battalion feeling tired because I had worked so hard, and at that point, no I didn’t think I wanted to come back as a C.O.  The war started and that changed everything; 9/11 happened and that definitely changed my perspective. 

“I wear a uniform, and serve in defense of our nation.  At that point I had a real calling to come back to the bees.  I went back as an XO, really loved being with the Seabees, and realized that I would like to, if selected, command a battalion.”

Simms shared an experience illustrating the same principle.

“I’m in Pakistan in 2005 after the earthquake.  I was the staff engineer for the combined disaster assistance center.  Admiral Le Fever, who was our commander, was at a meeting and the engineer from NATO wanted to talk to his engineer – the U.S. engineer.

“And so the Admiral says ‘I can set up that appointment for you, she’s’ — and the guy says ‘woe, woe, woe!  Who else do you have I can talk to?’  I was a lieutenant commander at the time, and the Admiral said, ‘I don’t understand your question.’

“Well it was two things; one, it was rank, and the other was that I was a woman.  So the Admiral says ‘well listen, she’s my engineer so if you want to talk to an engineer that’s who you need to talk to.’  End of story. 

“So it’s people like that who have the courage to say ‘this is who I have, and you’ve got to deal with it, and you’re going to be fine.’  When those people who look beyond your physiology and recognize – ‘hey this is the best person for the job’ – then opportunities begin to open up.”

At the end of a visit Donovan made to Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, she was approached by a Builder 2nd Class who told her how much it meant for her to have a female commodore.  “It’s very humbling and a huge honor to have that role,” expressed Donovan on being a role model. 

Aguayo’s experiences have left her with a similar realization.  “You don’t even realize – when you’re in the leadership roles that we have been – you don’t even realize the impact that you’re having on people.  It’s later.  People may come up to you and say, ‘I remember this,’ or ‘I remember that’ – you just don’t even realize it.  It’s pretty powerful.”

Ensign Lore Aguayo (highlighted left), Ensign La Tanya Simms (highlighted right) - CEC Basic Course #201 Class Photo - Oct. 1993.

Women and men choose to serve in the military for any number of reasons.  These officers are no exception.  “Like a lot of people, I joined the military for education benefits – and then you kind of see how it goes,” said Simms.  “I’ve been fortunate to work for some of the best leaders in the Civil Engineer Corps who recognized that I probably was limiting my career, by my own limited aperture.”

Simms has not been one to stress over aligning herself for a specific title or position.  In her words, “I couldn’t get out of my own way in terms of seeing possibilities.  I was doing well in jobs and having fun doing them, but I was still, in some respects, limiting myself.”

She credits others for helping her to realize her own potential.  “If I didn’t receive the guidance of the people who were placed in my path I probably wouldn’t have become a C.O.,” stated Simms.  It took a call from the head detailer who, at the time was Capt. Muilenburg, the current commodore of the 30th NCR, before she realized that she was ready to return to the NCF and perhaps someday get the opportunity to command a battalion.

As a brand new Ensign in 1993, Aguayo’s reasons for joining the Navy also included education benefits in addition to traveling overseas.  Making a career out of the Navy was not something in her plans at that time, and since NMCBs were closed to women, commanding a battalion didn’t even seem to be a possibility.

“I think mentors in our lives make you realize that you can do a job that maybe you didn’t realize you could really do,” said Aguayo who received a call from Capt. Rios encouraging her to become a battalion executive officer after the attacks of 9/11. 

“All I needed was that little push from someone who believed in me to help me realize that I’m ready to come back and do what I can to support the effort and lead our Seabees,” continued Aguayo.  “It makes such a difference in our lives and our careers when we have the right people that are mentoring us.

Though the law still prohibits women from being placed in certain direct combat roles, progress continues to be made in the acceptance of women in the US military.  For example, in 2010 the Navy began allowing women to serve on some submarines.  According to Simms, seeing women serve in the military is not even an issue for the younger generation.

“I think it’s hit or miss, and it’s about the personalities that you deal with.  Sometimes it’s a bit more challenging to work with folks that have been in the Navy a long time,” said Simms.  “However, overall the environment has improved a great deal.”

Similarly, Aguayo sees improvement in acceptance of women.  “Yes, I remember when I first came in, being one of the first females in a battalion, you were looked at a certain way,” Aguayo recalled.  “You were always on stage; always.  But I think people now don’t see us as so different.” 

Aguayo expresses pride in the Seabee and CEC communities.  “My husband was in aviation, and he remembers when women were first allowed into aviation.  That was a tough community to break into for women.  There was a lot of controversy surrounding a couple of accidents involving female pilots, so I think it was much harder for them to integrate.  I think for us, the transition has gone pretty smoothly,” stated Aguayo.

In a speech announcing his 21st Century Sailor and Marine initiative (March 5, 2012), Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus stated that the number of women in the Department of the Navy (DON) has increased by 240 percent in the last 33-years.  He expressed the intent of the DON in the following excerpt.

“But we have to do better in making the Navy and Marine Corps a place where more women want to stay and make a career and move on to the top ranks of our officers and our NCOs.

“The Navy is the only service where, regardless of mission, women are permanently assigned to operational units such as ships, and aviation squadrons, afloat staffs, Naval Construction Force units and some submarine platforms, and that will be expanding to all our subs soon.”

Women currently make up 16 percent of the Navy’s active duty force, and they comprise approximately 23 percent of the Navy’s recruiting goal for fiscal years 2012 and 2013.

Clearly, attitudes toward women serving in our nation’s military have changed over decades, and the Navy is taking a proactive approach toward further female integration.  In time, situations like the following story from Simms, will decrease.

“Last homeport, I was checking e-mails before P.T. one morning with the door to the side entrance slightly cracked.  Despite the ‘Commanding Officer’ sign outside, a newly reporting Seabee poked his head inside, saw me, and asked, ‘Excuse me, are you the C.O.’s yeoman?’” 

Donovan views being a minority as a positive thing.  Her advice to service members who are female is simple.  “Each person should just strive to be the best leader or best Seabee they can be, and being female is just an adjective people use to describe you.  It doesn’t define you as a leader.”

Simms, speaking directly to CEC officers, advises to follow the standard career advice given in CECOS then draws from her own career experience. 

“The other piece is to take hard jobs and do well in them.  But I would say that the one thing that is sort of an intangible is you’ve got to be able to work the room.  I tell my J.O.s – you may not be the most social person, and a lot of engineers and architects are type-A personalities so in terms of that human contact, it’s sort of tough.  But you’ve got to go to those (formal and social events) – the hail and farewells – and talk to people. 

“And I’m probably one of the most anti-social people you’ll ever meet.  But your people have to know who you are because that’s how you get detailed in the Civil Engineer Corps.  People ask for you by name.”

Cmdr. Lore Aguayo (left) and Cmdr. La Tanya E. Simms pose for a photo prior to NMCB-4's tranfer of authority of Camp Krutke to NMCB-11 on February 13, 2012

Aguayo advises, “Just because it hasn’t been done before, don’t think it can’t.  If there’s something you want to do, go for it.” She further asserts that regardless of gender or ethnicity, the right training, capabilities, and leadership will enable one to accomplish anything.   

“I always tell my J.O.s, our number one job is not to be engineers or architects, it’s to be leaders.  Otherwise, take off the uniform and go somewhere else,” said Aguayo.  “There are so many opportunities in the Navy.  I had an opportunity to go be a Legislative Fellow for a year and work in the Senate.  The sky’s the limit.”

Even though the 1994 Defense Authorization Act marked a leap in progress furthering women’s integration into the U.S. military, it still excluded women from infantry, Special Forces, and the frontlines of direct combat. 

The Department of Defense is expected to loosen its restrictions on women this year by opening up more assignments that put women closer to direct combat.  This expansion of 14,000 jobs will still leave restrictions in place and assignments, such as special operations units and infantry, closed to women.

Arguments against further integration of women include inferior physical capabilities, decreased military readiness due to physical tensions between men and women in the field for extended periods of time, and fear of lower standards.

If those who argue for removing the restrictions placed on women are correct, then the men and women of our military stand to benefit from an increased pool of qualified service members to draw from and a diversity that closer mirrors that of the U.S.

The women featured here are proven leaders and prime examples of good mentorship and hard work while representing a diverse Navy.

Regarding further expansion of women’s roles in the military, Aguayo stated, “Discussions continue, but if we have anything to learn from history then maybe it is – no big deal.”

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