Women in charge on the Navy’s newest warships

During World War II, women put in motion a huge cultural shift, when they answered a call to serve their country at war. Today they are chasing America's enemies and doing good on the seas.

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SAN DIEGO, Calif., 2016. Commander Michel Falzone aboard USS Fort Worth at Naval Base San Diego. Photo by Jeanne McKinney

SAN DIEGO, March 06, 2017 – During World War II, women put in motion a huge cultural shift, when they answered a call to serve their country at war. Thousands filled civilian jobs in factories and those who joined the military took jobs that would free men to fight.

Nearly 350,000 women served in uniform in all branches.

Another historical page was turned with Ash Carter’s momentous decision in 2016, to open all combat positions to women. Skeptics and critics contend that women in newly-opened combat roles would lower physical standards, endanger force protection, and reduce lethality in front-line operations. Proponents remind that women have already experienced the hazards of combat.

More than 280,000 women were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade since 9/11.

SOUTH CHINA SEA, 2015. A Sikorsky S-70B Seahawk from the Republic of Singapore Navy lands on USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) during deck landing qualifications as part of Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Singapore 2015. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joe Bishop/Released)

With the nonlinear nature of fighting in this war on terror, it’s hard to tell where the front lines are.

Navy Corpsman Tarren Windham encountered a shoot-out while on an armored convoy in Iraq, testing the nerves. “It was liberating to know you are who those Marines trust,” she related. Aviation Rescue Swimmer Laura Munger led male sailor counterparts through the brutal rigors of training by believing, “you have to be tougher than the boys.”

Overcoming the difficult or hard while defending freedom is not limited to male military achievement.

Female Commander moves in closer to combat zones.

When you walk onto the bridge of a Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), you think you’re in the USS Starship Enterprise of movie fame. Instead of meeting Star Trek’s Captain Picard, you meet Navy Commander Michel Falzone, the captain of USS Fort Worth (LCS 3).

Capt. Picard would ensure that his ship and crew are safe and his mission complete.

CHANGI NAVAL BASE, 2015. Cmdr. Michel Falzone passes food down a working party aboard the USS Fort Worth (LCS 3). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joe Bishop/Released)

And so it is with CDR Falzone, commander of the USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) Freedom-class variant.

“When I was younger, my mom and dad always told me my gender did not limit what I could choose as a profession. And for many reasons, I ultimately chose to drive ships. When I was commissioned, I didn’t fully understand that women had only been on warships for about four years and that the Navy was still navigating the path to fully integrate women into the Surface Warfare community,” offers Falzone.

Growing up in the Army, Falzone liked the Navy’s waterfront appeal and college opportunities. She started as an Ensign and now serves as the only female in a number-one position on an LCS, hailed for its speed, maneuverability, and shallow draft. According to All Hands Magazine, after the Cold War and DESERT STORM, the Navy announced it would build “a new generation of small, fast and agile ships.”

Falzone can drive her ship to areas once closed off due to inaccessibility – bringing advantages to neutralize/quiet hostilities that breed in shallower waters.

Commander John Kochendorfer, a former commanding officer of USS Coronado (LCS 4), once called the LCS, “a military jet ski with a flight deck and a gun”…capable of speeds in excess of 40 knots and able to operate in as little as 20 feet of water.

PACIFIC OCEAN, 2015. USS Fort Worth (LCS-3) provides a sea-going platform for UH-60A Black Hawk from Army 25th Combat Aviation Brigade to conduct deck landing qualifications. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Antonio P. Turretto Ramos/Released)

Falzone leads LCS CREW 102 (roughly 70 sailors) by focusing on training, maintaining her ship, and above all – safety. Real peril exists, like Iranian floating mines in maritime chokepoints, swarms of fast boat attacks in sea lanes, stealth submarines denying the freedom to navigate, and pirates with automatic weapons.

“How do I insure everybody goes home every day with ten fingers, ten toes, and all their appendages?” she asks herself daily.

“The opposing force always gets a vote in what you do,” she added. “We think about most dangerous and most likely scenarios and plan for everything in between,” said Falzone.

As ultimate authority on board, she has, at her disposal, LCS packages that range from Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) – to Surface Warfare (SUW) – to Mine Countermeasures (MCM) systems, all optimized to counter threats in near-coastal regions. The LCS can do significant damage with advanced sensors, the latest missiles, a 57-mm 110mk rapid-fire deck gun, cutting-edge cyber security systems, and capabilities of the MH-60 Seahawk helicopters (the Freedom-class LCS supports).

“In the early days of army war, you eat together, focus together, and talk, so when push comes to shove and you have to fire that weapon in defense, you will defend that person standing next to you. Although, the Navy’s different than the Army, I believe those concepts are true today,” said Falzone.

She and her crew get to prove them, chasing the bad guys out of the littorals.

The Navy has received eight LCS ships so far. Falzone and other women sailors in rotational LCS crews explore the risks, fix the glitches, and set precedent alongside the men. They log thousands of nautical miles keeping lanes open in contested waters, shoring up readiness with foreign navies, and probing endless depths, when called upon as in the Java Sea search to find Air-Asia flight 8501 in 2015.

Falzone calls herself ‘lucky’ to have had commanding officers who judged her on her merits, helping her realize her that own wants and desires were her only limits to her potential.

“That is what has carried me through my nearly 19 years of service,” she related, “and all I can hope to do is pass that along to all of my Sailors and officers.”

Information colonization: the stuff of life for Navy IT expert.

For Chief Jennifer Martinez, getting through the haul – is knowing your Information Technology (IT) business. All those LCS mission packages are linked to computers. Martinez, is currently training for USS Tulsa (LCS 16) Independence – class variant, christened February 11th, 2017, in Mobile, Ala.

SAN DIEGO, Calif., 2016. Chief Jennifer Ann Martinez at Naval Base San Diego. Photo by Jeanne McKinney

She’s excited to be working on multimillion-dollar equipment. “Stuff, normal young people couldn’t fathom touching,” said Martinez.

Losing her mother at a young age, Martinez didn’t have the money to go to college. She planned to join the Marines, like her brother, but another recruiter got to her first.

“When I joined the Navy I never saw myself as anything other than a Sailor and I immediately had two goals: sea duty for my first tour and to serve onboard an aircraft carrier. I am grateful that both those goals were met during my first tour on USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). That tour ignited something in me that fueled my career,” recounted Martinez

Martinez’s IT work on bigger ships, like aircraft carriers, was more compartmentalized. On the Tulsa, she’ll be able to more fully experience her naval rate, handling four or five different jobs in network security, communications, and network management. She will get a chance to lead an LCS IT team, as they identify vulnerabilities, stave off hackers, and preserve network integrity for internal, offship, and satellite communications.

The pipeline is lengthy to qualify, first learning in a simulated environment on proprietary equipment. “It’s the kind of opportunity to put your own footprint on and start from scratch,” said Martinez.

She will report to the USS Tulsa in 2018, anxious to get her hands on the real thing.

Integrity, confidence, and feeling bonded are what the Navy has given Martinez over the last 16 years. “The people I met and the family gained have made a profound impact on my life, and I am proud every day to be a part of this organization.”

Her Navy parent has taught her that details matter.

A flash across her computer screen on September 11th, 2001, would tell her what to do.

“While your adrenaline is pumping, it’s pretty cool to know that the training you receive isn’t just ‘do as I say’. There’s a purpose to it and it was pretty neat to be able to act on it as an 18-year-old seaman.”

Her aircraft carrier quickly turned around to go to its area of operation.

Capt. M. Jordan Harrison, Commander, Littoral Combat Ship Squadron ONE, offers recognition,

“Women have served on littoral combat ships since program inception. I have tremendous confidence in Cmdr. Falzone and all the top-notch LCS leaders that I have the distinct opportunity to serve with on a daily basis. Their diverse background and leadership qualities are integral to the success of the Navy today and in the future.”

A new resilience is revealed as more women stretch farther than ever in exacting combat roles. Praise to their male counterparts who set the bar and inspire with indomitable bravery and patriotism.

Undeniably, they all contribute to terrorists stopped, piracy eliminated, missiles kept in silos, bullets kept in magazines, torpedoes in their housings, mines undetonated, global economies protected, and wars halted.

Today’s evil does not respect life, gender, age, culture – so it’s tough to step towards it in these changing battlespaces. But step, both men and women, they do.

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Jeanne McKinney
Jeanne McKinney is an award-winning writer whose focus and passion is our United States active-duty military members and military news. Her in-depth stories cover people in all US service branches, including US Navy, Marine Corps, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, and National Guard. Reporting includes first- hand accounts of combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fight against al-Qaeda and ISIS, global defense, tactical training and readiness, humanitarian and disaster relief assistance, next- generation defense technology, family survival at home, US port and border protection and illegal interdiction, women in combat, honoring the Fallen, and much more. McKinney has won nine San Diego Press Club “Excellence in Journalism Awards”, including five First Place.