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After 25 years, still a commanding presence: Quartet of female Naval officers remain close

Maureen Sullivan has lived in Hunt Meadow for two years.

But she hasn’t quite unpacked. She can’t help shake a certain feeling.

“Maybe the Navy’s going to move us.”

Sullivan retired more than 15 years ago, but her 20-year military career is never far from her mind.

The members of the Commanders Club understand.

Sullivan is among four women officers who bonded while serving at the Naval Academy in the late ‘80s and stayed together.

“One day, we just decided if the guys can have their club, we’ll have one,” she said.

Through work, marriage, children, retirement from the military and illness, they’ve provided comfort and camaraderie.

“It originally started as a work-related support group,” said Chris Edwards of Epping Forest. “Over the years, it evolved to life support.”

She tells of a surprise trip to New York for her 50th birthday where the group took in “Flower Drum Song.” Her brother had just been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and after she told them, Sullivan reached out and held her hand.

“It was just hope. She offered the possibility of hope,” Edwards said.

Now in their early 60s, the members of the Commanders Club trade phone calls and emails, and get together for holidays and trips. The arts, theater, music and food are shared interests. A photo from a recent Christmas shows the quartet wearing aprons and saluting the camera with wooden spoons. The aprons were a gift from one of them. The salute was self-explanatory.

“We all had friends other places in the Navy, but the four of us have this very special thing,” said Mary Purdy of Davidsonville.

She and Edwards work with a management and consulting firm. Edwards is also a photographer. Sullivan teaches Spanish at Indian Creek Lower School. She plans on retiring at the end of the school year and the group’s next trip might be a celebratory excursion to Santa Fe.

Cynthia Mathwick of Riva is retired and volunteers with the Assistance League of the Chesapeake, where she’s vice president of membership.

All attended Officer Candidate School and left the Navy in the ‘90s as commanders — and all married Navy men. Three of them outrank their spouses. Mathwick’s daughter is the only one of their children to follow them into the military. She’s a captain in the Marine Corps. Mathwick’s mother was a member of the WAVES in World War II.

“For me, the Commanders Club is friends that really understand you and share your values. They know where you’ve been and where you’re going,” Sullivan said.

Command structure

The Naval Academy wasn’t their first post, or their most difficult. But it presented its own challenges.

The women served during the time of a sexual harassment scandal at the academy. They saw female midshipmen who were depressed about the environment and worked to better the situation.

Twenty years after she left the academy, Purdy ran into a women who was a midshipman while she was there. The woman told Purdy how she’d looked to her as role model. It meant a lot.

Purdy was a company officer at the academy, as was Edwards for half of her first tour. She also taught history. On her second tour in the late ‘90s, Edwards was a personnel officer on the superintendent’s staff. .

Sullivan served at the academy for seven years and had three jobs, among them training officer. Mathwick was in the IT department.

“The environment at the academy has come a long way because these folks went in there and made the women feel better about themselves,” she said.

Overall, they enjoyed their time at the academy, and at the other posts.

“I always said I’d always quit the Navy if I stopped having fun,” Purdy said.

They joined the military because they wanted to see the world and have interesting careers. The Navy didn’t disappoint.

“Sometimes they throw you in the water and you have to swim,” Sullivan said. “It’s a challenge, but you grow.”

Sometimes, it seemed as if they were swimming upstream.

In her first post after OCS and Intelligence School, Edwards went to a Jacksonville, Fla. squadron where she was the only women officer among 300 men. She compared the environment to the atmosphere surrounding the first women sports reporters in men’s locker rooms.

“I came to the realization the guys who were jerks would always be jerks,” she said.

But everything worked out.

She and the others decided early on they weren’t going to give up their identities as women to serve. The attitude worked well. A good sense of humor also helped.

“We were so committed to what we were doing,” Sullivan said. “We weren’t looking for preferential treatment. You were just looking for equal rights.”

The decision to hang up their uniforms wasn’t easy, nor was the transition to civilian jobs where the work ethic and level of respect could be vastly different. Mostly, leaving the military had to do with raising children. Edwards was the last of the group to retire, in 1998.

Like everything else, they have few regrets and are proud to have served the country. “You can leave the Navy, but the Navy never leaves you,” Sullivan said. “It’s a culture. No culture’s perfect, but you’re there to make a difference.”

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