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Navy command master chief witness to a sea of change for military women

Strategic Communications Wing One Command Master Chief Cynthia Patterson reminisces about the differences in women's roles from being in the Navy now compared to when she enlisted in 1985. She cites that she would not be where she is today without support from her family and the help of numerous mentors along the way. (Air Force photo by Kelly White)

Strategic Communications Wing One Command Master Chief Cynthia Patterson reminisces about the differences in women's roles from being in the Navy now compared to when she enlisted in 1985. She cites that she would not be where she is today without support from her family and the help of numerous mentors along the way. (Air Force photo by Kelly White)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE -- In 1985, Cynthia Patterson was a single Florida mom raising a 2-year-old son when she decided to enlist to serve her country and learn skills for a better future.

She tried the Army first, but was told she didn't meet height and weight requirements. The Navy, where she went next, had limited opportunities for women at the time. For one, they couldn't serve on combat ships. But the fleet had started growing again in the Cold War. She was accepted as a recruit.

She joined a force that only seven years earlier had finally allowed women to serve on auxiliary ships, despite a long and honorable tradition of service on hospital ships.

Today, more than 55,000 active-duty female Sailors (17 percent of the total force) now serve on - or command - combat ships, submarines and fighter jets. They also serve in ground combat roles and work in special operations units. There are more female officer and enlisted leaders than ever before.

Command Master Chief Patterson herself is one of nearly 50 Command Master Chiefs in the Navy. She is the CMC for Strategic Communications Wing One, aka Task Force 124 or TACAMO (Take Charge and Move Out!). She serves under Wing Commander Capt. Heather E. Cole.

Command Master Chief Patterson served her first 15 years with the Navy Seabees, the storied corps of mechanics and engineers in military construction.

"I worked on graders, dozers, trucks, cars, forklifts," she said. "You name it and once or twice, at least, I've turned a wrench on it or changed a tire on it."

Command Master Chief Patterson said she faced a fair amount of begrudging attitudes back then in the traditionally male dominated field.

"We were definitely not really welcome there, but it was, 'Hey, you're in my military, you'll do what I tell you to do,'" she said. "And you just did it."

She credits her mom with good advice that served her well as a young Sailor.

"I remembered something my mother told me a long time ago -- and she's 80-something now -- but she had worked in factories during World War II and other jobs," Command Master Chief Patterson said. "She said, 'Women work twice as hard as men to be thought half as good. Fortunately, it's not that hard for us to do that.'

"So I always remembered that," she said. "Just do what you're supposed to do. You show 'em, and once you did that, then you became an accepted part of the team no matter what your gender was."

In the '90s, she was assigned as an equipment mechanic to a naval special warfare development group in Dam Neck, Va. She was the first female Seabee accepted there. She worked on high-speed assault craft with the SEALS.

"They readily accepted you," she said. "They didn't care who you were, just as long as you could keep up and do the job. It was a great job."

She later worked to become a Navy counselor, advising Sailors on career development and managing human resources. Pivoting from mechanic to counselor meant furthering her education.

She earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland in 2000. She has a master's degree in human resources management from the University of Oklahoma - studies she started while stationed in Iceland. She's currently working on a doctorate from Oklahoma State University.

The chief is a big promoter of education for career opportunities in and out of the military.

"I have always firmly believed that everyone in the military should get a degree," she said. "If the military's providing you free education, then you do everything you can to get that degree.

"In the civilian sector, they're looking at that degree," she said. "They want to know what you have that sets you apart from this other individual. And you're not just going to be able to say 'I was in the military for 25 years' - so have a lot of other people."

Her 29-year career has led her to challenges around the world. In 2007, she became the first female command senior chief of a littoral combat ship, the USS INDEPENDENCE (LCS 2 BLUE).

She also advises military members to seek out mentors.

"I had a lot of good mentors, I really did," she said. "I had individuals who looked past the roughness, the gruff early on, and said, 'There's potential in that Sailor, and I'm going to help her get from point A to point B.'

"And I listened to what they told me to do. 'You will do this. You need to do this to be successful.'

Command Master Chief Patterson said that compared to the 1980s, the atmosphere for potential gender-based discrimination isn't remotely what it was like then.

"I really don't see gender a lot of times," she said. "The Navy doesn't really see gender anymore, either, I believe. They focus on your abilities and the qualifications that you have and what you bring to the job."

Command Master Chief Patterson, who has served on the ground in Afghanistan, noted that the distinction between combatant and noncombatant roles has disappeared for warfighters in insurgency zones. That reality has pushed backed barriers for women, and she thinks the trend will continue.

"By 2017, women will probably be in all areas of the Navy," the CMC said. "And I believe the young women who work in the military today, the majority of them will tell you that they are treated with dignity and respect and valued for the talent that they bring to the table and what they bring to the fight."