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Naval Academy greets record number of female plebes

Early female grads speak with pride of gender revolution they helped start

By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

6:56 PM EDT, June 28, 2012

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The snide comments surprised Randy Kurtz, who figured she was suffering the same harrowing rites of passage as her U.S. Naval Academy classmates as they trudged through the plebe summer of 1978.

"You don't belong here," the male midshipmen might say. A few seemed to take particular glee in pulling her down as she attempted the Herndon Climb, which culminates plebe year.

Kurtz, a Connecticut native, was part of the third academy class to include women, and the spirit of equality had not sunk in with everyone. But those days seemed very long ago this week, as she returned to Annapolis to drop off her daughter, Helena Cheslack, for the start of plebe summer.

Cheslack was one of 295 female plebes, a record 24 percent of the entering Class of 2016. She and her classmates arrived Thursday expecting the toughest summer of their young lives. But they spoke matter-of-factly about the increasing gender equity of the brigade. That casual acceptance felt like victory for the women of earlier classes.

"It's a good reflection on the times," said Kurtz, now a Florida attorney and a reserve captain in the Navy supply corps.

The record number, up from 19 percent last year, is a natural result of long-term efforts to diversify the brigade, said Lt. Rachel Walker, an academy admissions officer. "I don't expect that it will stop there," she said.

There seemed little distinction between the male and female plebes as they waited apprehensively outside Alumni Hall.

"Honestly, it's not a big deal in this day and age," said 2012 academy graduate Jameson Marshall, on hand to assist with induction day.

In a few hours, the plebes would all wear the same white New Balance running shoes, share the same struggles to achieve a rigid salute and hear the same barked admonitions from upperclassmen. Women would be spared the head shavings imposed on male classmates, but that seemed the only break.

"I've heard not to worry about it, because they don't treat you any differently," said Ashley Paek, a soccer player and aspiring physician from Leesburg, Va.

When she expressed interest in the academy, her dad, a postal worker, said, "Oh my God. You're a girl, you can't go."

But once Paek's parents learned that the academy charges no tuition and has a significant percentage of female students, they changed their tune.

Paek was chatting with classmate Cynthia Nestor of Silver Spring. "It's amazing," Nestor said when asked about the progress of women at the academy. "It shows how much we're doing."

"It's everywhere," Paek added. "Women are stepping up."

Nestor said she warmed to the idea of the Navy when she saw a hospital ship delivering supplies and care in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. She seemed unconcerned about the coming rigors of plebe summer.

"At the high school where I went, everybody treated everything as a joke, and I hated it," she said. "But this is about as serious as you get."

Some troubling aspects of life remain for women at the academy.

The Department of Defense reported 22 sexual assaults there in 2010-2011, twice as many as the previous year and up from five in 2006-2007. More than 16 percent of female midshipmen said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact in a 2009-2010 survey by the Defense Manpower Data Center. Academy officials have said they're not sure if assaults are actually up or if programs that encourage reporting of offenses are simply working better.

Regardless, this year's female plebes said they would deal with similar issues at any university.

"The girl thing, you're going to get that anywhere," Nestor said. "There's just more publicity about it here because it's the military."

Alma Grocki, a graduate of the second class to include women, said she was lucky to avoid the prejudice experienced by female peers. Some of them were routinely forced to stand and sing embarrassing songs or to read aloud sexist passages of writing.

After dropping off her son for plebe summer on Thursday, Grocki spoke proudly about the revolution she helped begin. "I think it's a validation of what we've been able to do in the fleet," she said of the record number of female plebes. "It's working. If we weren't able to do the jobs, they wouldn't keep encouraging more women to apply."

Grocki grew up around the Navy shipyard in Pearl Harbor and was only moderately aware of the resistance to women at the academy. "I'm kind of stubborn," she said. "I was not going to let someone tell me what not to do because I was a girl. I did not realize it was a big, big thing."

There were amusing aspects; early female midshipmen had to wear ill-fitting clothes originally tailored for men. And it was hard to feel normal when reporters from Newsweek and Time were around, asking for interviews.

Grocki met her husband, Russ, at the academy. He remembered his surprise at hearing catcalls directed toward a female midshipmen who had risen to brigade commander. "I just remember thinking, 'This is so stupid,'" he said. "Everyone in that room had served with women. But it took probably 10 years to work that out of the system."

"No, I think it's still there," said his wife, who recruits for the academy.

Her father-in-law, Chet Grocki, graduated from the academy in 1958. Admitting women, he said, "was resisted by my generation. The mentality was that they had to be teachers or secretaries. But it was a good idea. The time had come."

Alma Grocki became an engineer charged with fixing submarines. A few years back, she was stationed with a male officer who told her he did not like female officers from the academy. After a time, however, he asked if Grocki would speak with his daughter about possible admission.

"I don't have the heart," she recalled him saying, "to tell her she can't do something because she's a girl."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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