On 6 July 1976, for the first time in the history of the U.S. Naval Academy, 81 female plebes were sworn in as midshipmen alongside 1,217 male classmates. Thirty years later, on 28 June 2006, 273 young women were inducted along with 945 male classmates, forming the Class of 2010. One of those young women is my daughter and one of those young men is my son. As a member of that first class of women, I am very proud that my children have chosen to serve their country, and I feel a great sense of accomplishment at having survived those challenging first four years so that my daughter will have much greater opportunities than the women of the Class of 1980 ever could have imagined.
For the early classes of women, with the Combat Exclusion Law still in place, one of the most troubling questions was, why were they attending a school whose mission was to train combat leaders if they could not serve in combat?
Retired Commander Kathy (Slevin) Clore, Class of 1980, recalls her response when told by an upperclassman that she was taking the place of a young man who could fight in combat. "I always said that the law prohibited women in combat at the time we entered, but it [Congress] took steps to change that law, and one of those steps was women attending the Academy."
"We can see that the law did exactly what it intended," agrees retired Commander Melissa Harrington, another member of that first class of women. "It opened up the Academies, and the services eventually figured out how to integrate the women."
Today, women can occupy 93 percent of the officer billets in the Navy and 95 percent of the enlisted billets, and they serve in all communities except submarines and special forces. Thousands of women are serving at sea and in combat arenas, and a number of Navy women have commanded ships.
This year, Michelle Howard, Class of 1982, was selected as the first female Naval Academy graduate to be promoted to rear admiral. In 1996, she became the first woman assigned as executive officer of a combatant ship, the USS Tortuga (LSD-46). In 1999, she assumed command of the USS Rushmore (LSD-47), becoming the first African American woman to command a ship.
The numbers indicate positive trends, but the words of Commander Kirk Lippold tell a much larger story. He was commanding officer of the USS Cole (DDG-67) in October 2000 when terrorists attacked the ship in Yemen. Debbie Courtney was his engineer, and Ann Chamberlain was his navigator. Both are Naval Academy graduates, and in his view, both are heroes. Following is his decription of their heroic acts: