MANAMA, Bahrain – “Gee, I wish I were man, I’d join the Navy.”
These words, from a 1917 recruiting poster of a woman wearing a man’s Navy uniform and a jaunty ‘Dixie Cup,’ are a relic of bygone era for women in the Navy today. This is especially so for the ones aboard USS Gladiator (MCM 11).
The forward-deployed Avenger-class mine countermeasures (MCM) ship welcomed their first three female chief petty officers to its crew earlier this year. The three chiefs, Chief Logistics Specialist Monique Graves, Chief Personnel Specialist Aracely Sanchez, and Chief Information Technician Nicole Knight, all checked onboard between January and March. Gladiator is the first MCM to integrate female enlisted Sailors into their crew.
“When I joined the Navy I didn’t expect to ever be put into a position where I would be the first to do anything,” said Graves, a native of Chesapeake, Virginia. “I thought I would just do my job and hopefully hit the milestones and my goals, but to be able to say that I was the first in naval history? I never would have thought that would happen for me.”
Female commissioned officers have been serving on MCMs as commanding officers and executive officers for some time, as these positions had separate living quarters. To prepare for the addition of enlisted females, however, the ship was refitted with female living quarters during the ship’s last dry-dock period.
While the berthing might be small, to these Sailors, its meaning is significant.
“That piece of metal, that rack, is where we lay our head down at night,” said Sanchez, a native of Tualatin, Oregon. “Just being around this crew makes us feel like we’re a family and makes us feel safe, and that’s what makes us feel like we’re home.”
Gladiator will provide guidance for USS Sentry (MCM 3) as that ship prepares for its own enlisted female integration. Both ships are planning to outfit their crews in the future with up to 18 enlisted female Sailors of all ranks.
Sanchez said she had never heard of minesweepers in her 18 years in the Navy. But that didn’t stop her from taking on the challenge of learning and adapting to fulfill their new roles.
“It doesn’t matter what gender you are,” said Sanchez. “Leadership comes from your heart and from your experiences.”
Graves agreed, adding that the sky was truly the limit.
“There are so many opportunities available here that you’re not able to do on any other platform,” said Graves. “I could be officer of the deck, combat information center watch officer, or really everything and anything I choose to be.”
“From the start of my career I’ve always wanted to make my own way,” said Knight, a native of Baltimore. “The reason I chose the Navy was to cover a branch of the service that no one else in my family has covered and to set a new path. I used that same logic to make the choice and go into the minesweeping community. I wanted to be a trailblazer for the junior Sailors and show that if I could do it, they could do it.”
“I think this is a sign of our Navy’s progression,” said Lt. Cmdr. Roosevelt B. White, Gladiator’s commanding officer. “I think this transition has been so effective because of our emphasis on being surface warfare professionals. We strive to foster an environment of dignity and respect no matter race, religion, gender, or sexual preference of any crew member and we do not tolerate any type of disrespect. We look forward to integrating junior enlisted female Sailors in the near future.”
“When I first got here and looked around at the Sailors, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Graves. “Now that I’ve fully embraced it, I’m having the time of my life.”
The MCM community continues to search for eligible applicants for the newly-available billets. Along with a new supply chief, the community is looking for 30 hard-charging junior enlisted women to serve on minesweepers.
Gladiator is one of four MCM ships forward deployed to Bahrain and is attached to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command’s (NAVCENT) Task Force (TF) 52. The Avenger-class MCMs are able to sweep and hunt for mines as well as finding, classifying and destroying moored and bottom mines in U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations.
TF 52 is the mine countermeasures force of the Coalition Forces Maritime Component Command overseen by the U.S. 5th Fleet. It operates regularly to ensure freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in the Arabian Gulf, one of the world's most critical bodies of water for international maritime traffic.
U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations encompasses about 2.5 million square miles of water area and includes the Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Red Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean. The expanse comprises 20 countries and includes three critical choke points at the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab al Mandeb at the southern tip of Yemen.