Hawaii roots help new rear admiral shatter ceilings in Navy career
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
HONOLULU — Alma M. Grocki was the first woman from Hawaii to be appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy, from which she graduated in 1981.
As a ship superintendent at Pearl Harbor, she became the first female officer to accompany a submarine — the USS Queenfish — on post-work sea trials for six days.
Grocki, who grew up in Kalihi and graduated from Punahou School, recently added to her interesting resume by pinning on her first star as rear admiral in her role as deputy chief of staff for fleet maintenance for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
It wasn't always smooth sailing. There was hardship and some equally hard feelings over women in traditionally male roles. And there was humor in breaking barriers.
Through it all, the "tomboy" kid who used to accompany her dad to his job as a shipyard foreman said she benefited from the diversity of Hawaii, which helped her navigate the challenges that came with her Navy career.
"We have so many different and diverse groups of people here," Grocki said. "We have local people, we have people from the mainland. We have every culture you can think of. We've got military, we've got civilians, we've got just a whole mix of people. So I think that's really helped me to be able to deal with different kinds of people."
She said it also helped that she had a thick skin, her parents didn't see boundaries and she was always up for a challenge.
There were some adjustments to be made as she entered the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., as a 17-year-old in 1977.
"The reality was that I was clueless. I showed up in a muumuu with leis," Grocki recalled.
She had been a competitive .22-caliber rifle shooter in ROTC at Punahou.
"So I walked right up into the main building (at the Naval Academy), right up into the main office, with my rifle, and asked if I could check into the armory," she said.
She was part of just the second class to graduate women. The class of 1981 started out with more than 100 women, with about 60 graduating, she said. That same class had 1,100 men and about 840 male graduates.
The Navy had integrated women into the academy very quickly, and there was a "lot of angst on both sides," she said.
"There are a lot of stories, anecdotal things and talk about the women being mistreated, and I think talking to my female classmates, in many cases, that was the situation," Grocki said.
But personally, she said she didn't see a lot of prejudice against women — although she knew it was there.
There were funny aspects to that rapid integration — including a misalignment of the uniform "gig line," the required lining up of a buttoned shirt line, belt buckle edge and pants fly.
"They tailored our pants so the fly was right over left, but they gave us men's shirts, which buttoned left over right," she said. "So we didn't have a gig line, and they didn't figure that out for a while. So that was pretty funny, because every time we had an inspection, some senior officer would say, ‘What's wrong with your uniform?'"
Grocki, one of two girls in her family, spent a lot of time with her father at the shipyard and with her tomboy ways was the "closest thing to a boy my father got."
She didn't think too much about limitations because of her gender, and neither did her parents.
"My parents never raised me that way — to think about what I can't do," she said. "(They would say), ‘So what are you interested in doing? Well, go look into it and go see if you can do it,' and that's sort of the way I approached going to the academy."
That interest led to an engineering position in 1985 in the shipyard, and jobs as ship superintendent for several surface ships and senior superintendent for multiple submarine maintenance availabilities.
It was then that Grocki spent six days at sea on the Queenfish, sleeping on bedding laid over torpedo rails.
The yard had civilian women go out on submarine test runs before, but not a female officer.
"Initially, I think, there was some consternation by some of the crew and some of their wives," Grocki said. "They were concerned about having a woman on board."
But once at sea, "most of the crew really didn't care because they knew that I had been running the project the whole time and if something was wrong, I would be the right person to have out there, along with all my test folks," she said.
Grocki transferred to the Navy Reserve in 1988 but returned to active duty for her current job.
Several years ago, when the Navy was considering placing women on submarines — something it is now implementing — Grocki took her own informal poll of some crew members.
"And almost to a person (they said), ‘We really don't care as long as they can do their jobs and stand the watch right,' and I think that's what it all comes down to is — as long as they are capable," the new rear admiral said. "I think I'm like everyone else, we don't want somebody on our boat or our ship or our aircraft that isn't capable, because I'm going to rely on them and they need to rely on me."