WHITE BEACH NAVAL FACILITY, Okinawa — At their first meeting, a top South Korean military official told her “good for you.”
“They view me as a novelty,” Rear Adm. Carol Pottenger said.
As the commander of Amphibious Force, U.S. 7th Fleet, Pottenger is the first woman to take charge of a Navy strike group.
Her duties in the Pacific bring her into contact with cultures that are largely male-dominated, with few — if any — females in leadership positions, particularly in the military.
At social functions with foreign dignitaries and military officials, there is some uncertainty about how she fits in with their traditionally boys-only club.
“It’s a little uncomfortable at first, and then they realize I’m just one of the guys,” she said.
Pottenger is used to being a pioneer.
Growing up, girls “could be a teacher, a nurse or a flight attendant,” she said, but a cousin turned her on to the Navy. She graduated ROTC from Purdue University in 1977 and expected to become a Navy nurse, “because that was the only option,” she said.
But she ended up among the first group of women to go on sea duty. Then in 1991 she was among the first to be assigned to a combat logistics ship.
“That’s really where I grew up,” she said.
Pottenger is pleased media haven’t been banging down her door to talk about this latest first. But she does plan to make her mark on the post.
She said she wants to be aggressive with the engagement aspect of her duties in terms of where ships go and what they do when they get there.
“I’m really going to try to push the envelope,” she said.
Since taking command of the Navy’s only forward-deployed amphibious force last November, she’s looked to send her seven Sasebo-based ships to ports the Navy hasn’t seen in a while and to expand the impact of community relations when they’re there.
Instead of just simply showing up in port and “playing a game of softball and giving ship tours,” her command will actively seek out where they can be of service, she said.
“Yes, we’re here for the Marines — to transport the 31st MEU to their missions — but we can do lots of other stuff, too,” Pottenger said.
One of her ships recently went to South Korea and did what she called concerted and intense community relations outreach. The projects were the “same old schools and orphanages” kind, but Pottenger sent Task Force 76 command chaplain Lt. Cmdr. Myung Kim to the country ahead of time to scout what the community needed.
“We’ve never had that kind of liaison before,” she said. “We led it instead of just showing up.”
Pottenger is the type of person whom people stop to watch when she walks into a room — and one gets the feeling that happens even when she’s not wearing a star on her collar.
Adm. Mike Mullen, who as chief of naval operations appointed Pottenger to the post, said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes that she is “an exceptional role model, not only for women — though certainly young women can find much to emulate in her — but also for sailors of any stripe and any age.”
Much has changed for women in her three decades in the Navy, she said, with sheer numbers being the most obvious difference, but also the level of acceptance.
Pottenger said her Navy experience has been mostly positive.
“I suspect I may have just put blinders on. Just said ‘I’m going to do it with or without you,’” she said. “There was an incident here and there, but nothing to scar me.”
Pottenger said she wants to be recognized for her work as a sailor, not as a female sailor. She wants that for the other women in the Navy as well, and she understands she’s helping to lead the way.
“I feel a great responsibility — outside from the responsibilities of the job, which are quite enormous,” she said.
On the USS Harpers Ferry this spring, she turned down the suggestion that she round up the ship’s female sailors for a pow-wow.
“To me that’s counterproductive,” she said. “In a male-dominated culture and organization, the last thing we want is to be singled out.”
Instead she floated an open invitation for female sailors to visit her. And many did.
“I understand the value of women being able to see a woman in a position like me,” Pottenger said. “But I’ve been careful to caveat throughout my career that I mentor across the board.”
Pottenger does embrace the adjective “female” in front of “leader’ when it’s pertinent to the mission. She said she thinks a lot about how she can push the envelope, not just with her ships, but also in terms of engaging an area of the world that’s male-dominated. For example, she plans to visit military academies in the Philippines and South Korea next fall to meet with female cadets.
“I can show other navies it’s no big deal” for women to be in charge, she said.
Being the only woman in the room when meeting with foreign military leaders “hasn’t gotten completely comfortable at this point,” Pottenger said. “But I think I’ve shifted their paradigm a little bit.”
Diversity among the ranks
Improving the diversity of its leaders is not just a priority for the Navy — it’s also a readiness issue, said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.
“We are doing well in certain aspects of diversity. But we can and must do better, especially with regard to opportunities for women and minorities,” he said. “But let me be clear. This effort is not about getting rid of barriers for one group. It’s about making sure everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential. It’s about rewarding good performance across the board.”