On This Day in Navy and Marine Corps History: October 20, 1994 – Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) deployed to the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf as the first carrier with permanently assigned women. Over 400 women served on board at times during the cruise.
I was the last crew member to walk aboard the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) for this historic deployment after saying goodbye to my wife and our four children on the dock, knowing that I wouldn’t see them again for about six months. .
A few months prior, I was stationed at the Pentagon as the Navy spokesperson during the horrific tailhook scandal. At the Pentagon, each day only got worse as we turned page after page on sexual harassment in the Navy. After months of processing and helping to develop a strategy for the Navy moving forward, I called my dispatching officer and told him that I was using a settlement of the Navy which states that “…officers may terminate their service ashore to return to sea.” I told him that I wanted the next assignment to the aircraft carrier. I wanted to get out of the DC Beltway and back to sea serving on a ship, not in the biggest politically charged office building in the world. I didn’t know what I had just signed up for.
It was shortly after I reported to IKE, the Navy announced that IKE would be the first combat ship to be integrated with women. It was a political attack. We hosted the President, the Secretary of Defense, all of the service secretaries, and more congressional and media delegations than I can remember. It was a constant stream of people getting on and off the ship. It was a good thing. They all recognized that we are upsetting two centuries of naval tradition. There’s a sentence in one of my fitness reports that reads: “IKE has hosted more distinguished visitors and news media than any other aircraft carrier in the aviation fleet. ‘Atlantic Reunited.’ My public affairs team was responsible for coordinating these events and I lived for months in a constant state of sleep deprivation. It was a very difficult period of service, but I was always aware that it was a good thing and that I was not in an open field with balls flying.
With nearly 30 years of hindsight, I am very proud of the quality of the integration of the crew. The women performed superbly despite the unfair intense microscope. It was not the earth-shattering event that everyone thought. The ship didn’t run aground because we had women on board. It was arguably one of the most significant milestones in Navy history. We’ve had a few issues to sort out, but we’ve shown impressive leadership in making life on board the ship more “normal” for everyone. Our army must reflect the people it protects and defends. Today, women are almost fully integrated and are essential to the Navy. We can’t put a fleet at sea without them.
I am so grateful to have been there and to have played a small part in this historic moment.
Bob Ross is executive director of the Connecticut Office of Military Affairs and president of the Association of Defense Communities.