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Female Navy veteran reflects on gender stereotypes in military

A sailor directs a SH-60 Sea Hawk pilot on the flight deck of the amphibious dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry on July 20, 2019, in the Persian Gulf.

KEYPHER STROMBECK/U.S. NAVY

By ALLIE KIRKMAN | The (Munster, Ind.) Times | Published: July 21, 2019

HOBART, Ind. (Tribune News Service) — Coming from a Navy family, Stacey Ojeda said she always felt like going into the military was part of her destiny.

“Not too far after I graduated high school, I decided to join,” said Ojeda, who grew up admiring her grandpas’ service in World War II and father’s in Vietnam War.

“It was actually a choice between Army or Navy — it was going to come down to whichever recruiter came and got me first because I was to the point where I wanted a change and to do something meaningful in life.”

The Hobart veteran, 49, served in the Navy from 1988 to 1997.

Hard-working woman

When she first joined, Ojeda wasn’t assigned a designated duty. But she went through boot camp and did everything she could to be put onto a ship.

“I went into a time when they were transitioning women into the more male-dominated jobs,” she said. At that time, most women were placed in jobs that included nursing or administrative work — jobs that were less physical and technical than a man’s regularly assigned duties.

Shortly before she was set to be transferred to Jacksonville, Fla., to work in a hospital, Ojeda was approached and asked whether she had interest in working as an aviation electrician. In the role, she would be responsible for maintaining and repairing a wide range of electrical and navigational equipment in Navy aircraft.

Ojeda said she was lucky to be given the job and just happened to have grown up around electricians.

“I already knew a lot about wiring and some troubleshooting,” Ojeda said. “I scored high for the aviation electricians rating, so they gave me orders for that right away.

“Anything that had a wire going to it, which, in a helicopter, is everything, I worked on.”

She went to Tennessee for six months, scored at the top of her class, and went on to complete training in Florida before being stationed in Kauai, Hawaii, for three years.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but off the island, there’s a missile range and there’s helicopters there,” Ojeda said. “There’s a grid in the water out there where they do target practice, so our helicopters go out and scoop up the dummy torpedoes. That was a pretty cool experience.”

After Hawaii, Ojeda spent the rest of her military career stationed in San Diego.

During the next five years, she found herself staying very busy in the Navy.

She was part of multiple helicopter squadrons, working on three different models of helicopters like the SH-60, which are the Seahawks known for hunting submarines. She did a deployment into the Persian Gulf on the USS Nimitz. She even was part of a battle group that floated off the coast of Taiwan for 50 days. The Navy had to “be a show of force” during that time to potentially protect Taiwan, which was being threatened by China for wanting to hold its own elections.

“I’m thankful I did it — going out to seas. It is exciting. Then, after a while, once you get used to it, it’s almost like ‘Groundhog Day’ every day. Our helicopters were always the first ones to take off and the last ones to land because we would do search and rescue,” Ojeda said, recalling her time on the flight deck.

“I remember some of the first few times with the F8 teams, we would be right next to the tower on the carrier. We’d be standing there, waiting, as some of the flight ops were going and as the jets were taking off, the rumble of the F8 teams just vibrates through your body. It’s like, ‘I can’t believe I’m standing here, experiencing this.’ ”

Earning respect

Throughout it all — and even today — one challenge that Ojeda found herself facing was the need to prove herself to those who thought what she was doing was a man’s job.

Ojeda said she had to “work very hard to earn the respect” she was deserved in the Navy, even as a shift supervisor.

“I used to have to correct people that would make statements about women being on a carrier. … I might not have been in during a time of combat, but it was still just as difficult,” Ojeda said. “There were three times that I nearly had been confronted or borderline assaulted. The one time I reported it, it was turned around on me, like I instigated it.”

Ojeda’s eyes began to fill with tears when she said she “just had to keep fighting” against the stereotypes she faced by both men and women.

“I had a job to do, and that’s what mattered,” she said.

Even today, Ojeda isn’t always recognized for the service she gave to her country.

“I have this on here and people will say nothing,” Ojeda said, pointing to her veteran patch, proudly displayed on her biker motorcycle jacket. “They’ll thank the guy next to me before they even say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ It’s so wrong and can hurt.”

“But I still stand proud and behind what I did. … I have learned to just keep charging forward and helping others.”

Ojeda is a proud member of the American Veterans Motorcycle Riders Association and a supporter of Operation Combat Bikesaver. The veteran participates in tribute rides and flag lines for fallen veterans as well as fundraising events to raise money for PTSD and suicide awareness.

She also is a board member of Mission One, a St. John nonprofit organization committed to helping veterans in need statewide.

Founded in 2018, the charity does everything from providing basic needs like hygiene products and clothes to cooking dinners and giving car rides to veterans. The Mission One board, which is made up of civilians and veterans, also regularly visits and volunteers for other organizations that support veterans.

“When my son turned 16, it was like my whole world was revolved around him. I felt like, ‘What am I going to do now with my life?’ I needed purpose,” Ojeda said. “I found that purpose in helping other veterans.”

Whether it’s helping a veteran walk through the process to receive their VA disability benefit or just providing a comforting phone call, Ojeda said she’ll do all she can to advocate and support her fellow veterans.

As she said, they deserve it.

“I’m about helping as many veterans as possible. There’s a great pride with serving for your country, no matter what branch you’re in. I’m very patriotic and there’s just such a great need for the support for veterans,” Ojeda said. “I believe people who have fought for our country are the core of our freedom. We wouldn’t have what we do if it wasn’t for all these veterans.”

©2019 The Times (Munster, Ind.)
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