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Men Learn Slowly, and with Hindsight

I recently watched the livestream performance of “I Feel the Need,” a one-woman show performed by former Navy Lieutenant Commander and aviation pioneer Loree Draude. The show describes Loree’s learning and professional transformation that takes place during carrier flight training and two deployments. I said pioneer, yet the story takes place circa 1993. It lands well with her first-person accounts, exacting use of aviator-approved language, and colorful descriptions of the personalities and qualities of the actual cast surrounding her during active duty.

Draude was one of 18 women in a carrier air wing, the first cohort to fly tactical jets on deployment. The descriptions of a “nugget” cruise, as an aviator’s first deployment is called, were as riveting in their telling as they were disappointing in some of their content.

The riveting parts. Flying aboard an aircraft carrier in perfect conditions is challenging and requires perishable skills to be continually refreshed through ongoing re-qualification. Flying aboard an aircraft carrier at night is next level and even scary; doing so in poor weather is downright terrifying. Draude describes it all in the first person with humor and intensity. (Note – I drove ships, not planes, on active duty. I use the descriptions of carrier landings above as described to me by multiple successful naval aviators.) Loree became so expert that she would become a Landing Signals Officer (LSO) demonstrating mastery such that she could evaluate the performance of other pilots landing on the carrier—yes, every landing is graded.

The disappointing parts.  During the Clinton administration, the doors were opened allowing women to fulfill combat roles as opposed to combat support. This meant they could now fly carrier-based fighter jets. The male-dominated culture was sluggish, if not downright slow, to recognize the competence and value women could and would bring to the airwing. Harassment, passive aggressiveness, and condescension were ever-present during Draude’s transition from primary flight training through the first deployment.

The better. During Draude’s second deployment the conditions improved considerably in that her mentorship of those officers junior to her, and on their own “nugget” cruise, was valuable in its authenticity. Her professional competence was recognized. Women flying jets and deploying on carriers became less novel.

I Feel the Need culminates with a flash forward to 2023—30 years later—recognizing the appointment of Lieutenant Amanda Lee as the first female pilot assigned to the Navy’s elite Blue Angels demonstration squadron. You have that right, 30 years after women being qualified to fly the same aircraft as the Blue Angels fly, a woman was brought onto the team.

Break from the show discussion. Last year headlines showered then-Captain, now-Rear Admiral, Amy Bauernschmidt as the first female Captain of a US Navy aircraft carrier. In retrospect, it seems unimaginable that it took so long for this to happen. Yet it takes years to develop the experience and expertise to lead at such a level. Further, the challenges and demands of women who want to raise a family are well documented and impede equitable upward mobility.  Many women leave service before the ten-year mark. Draude left at ten years.

The surface warfare community has produced few women at the most senior ranks. The submarine community lags by decades having only opened submarine billets to women in 2010 and assigning women in 2011. The elite Navy Seals, the Navy’s special warfare community has not yet seen a woman qualify, although women are eligible to apply.

In the last few weeks, you may have noticed a level of anticipation at the prospect of the Navy being led by its first woman, Admiral Lisa Franchetti, the current Vice Chief of Naval Operations and seasoned surface warfare officer. So few are the female contenders for such a high position that when timing and opportunity appear to align, the selection seemed downright logical. For all the precedent cited about supposed requirements to become CNO, nearly all have been broken before if one looks at the selection record:

  • Must be a sitting four-star. Not always.
  • Must have had a four-star command. Not always.
  • Must not be of the same warfare community as the incumbent. Not always.
  • Must be a political insider known by the President. Not always.
  • Must have combat experience. Not always.
  • Must have substantial resource management (DC budgets) experience. Not always.

As of this writing, Franchetti was not selected for this position, this time. SecDef made his recommendation to nominate Admiral Sam Paparo, presently the Commander of the Pacific Fleet. However, the President gets the final say and has yet to formalize the nomination. Franchetti is surely qualified, but is also qualified for other senior positions, and may well find herself in even higher office in time. Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs or a Combatant Command could well be in her immediate future. Several, not many, women came before Admiral Franchetti, but none have been as serious a contender for CNO as she.

As a father of four now-adult daughters born in the 1980s and 1990s, and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I can say the change and adaptation for women in service was too slow. Programs could and should have been developed to help women ascend more quickly. How many women did we lose too early at the 8–12-year point where the critical years of professional development collide directly with the demands of raising children?

I commanded a cruiser and a destroyer, each of which had an integrated crew of men and women. That was 20 years ago. Surely enough time has passed that the Navy’s flag officer ranks should be better represented by women. Of the approximately 40 women to serve under my command, one rose to command her own ship before retiring as a Captain.  By comparison, I served in one cruiser where four male department heads rose to become Admirals!

I should note the disparity in the Navy’s senior ranks also mirrors the most senior positions in corporate America. Fewer than 20 percent of the most senior corporate positions are filled by women.

Loree Draude went on to earn an MBA at Wharton, and work for the likes of Google and Bain. She clearly had the intellectual horsepower to lead the Navy at a much more senior level had she stayed and had the service been ready for her. Exercising creative talents in a one-woman show takes guts. No supporting cast, flashy production, or dance numbers. Just one woman on stage telling her story, and the story of a generation of naval aviators trying to serve something much bigger than themselves.

Draude has performed “I Feel the Need” off-Broadway in New York City, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and most recently (the show I saw) at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in Santa Monica, CA.

When did you last test yourself or break a mold? Are you sitting just a bit too comfortably? Look around. Who around you is breaking a mold? What’s your role in their development?

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