June Ambrose’s home does not have the flags, certificates or photos that many veterans use to adorn their walls. There are almost no signs of her 23-year career in the Navy, from which she retired as a senior chief petty officer.
“The last 14 years, I have totally separated, segregated and divorced the military,” she said. Similarly, she avoided veterans groups and organizations, until they came looking for her.
In conjunction with Veterans Day and the arrival of the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall, Sonoma Veterans of Foreign War Post #1943 will honor women in the military during a special ceremony on Sunday, Nov. 11, beginning at 11 a.m. at the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building, 126 First St. W. It is part of a five-day Cost of Freedom Tribute, from Nov. 7 to 11 that also includes a spotlight on Vietnam veterans, a mobile military museum and a ceremony to honor firefighters and law enforcement officers. (To see a full schedule, visit vfwpost1943.org).
Ambrose was invited to take part in the ceremony to honor the often overlooked female veterans, as one of the Valley’s decorated women in the military. It is an event she is looking forward to, even if it means dredging up the past.
“I’m not used to having to deal with all of these things from my career that I haven’t fully dealt with,” Ambrose said, admitting that she’s never spoken about her years of service with a civilian before.
Ambrose was just 16 when she decided to go into the Navy. “My grandmother, who’s my hero, had photos of her eight sons on this wall, and seven of them were in Navy uniforms,” she said. “I said, ‘Grandma, someday I’m going to be on that wall.’”
She enlisted at 17, just after graduating Sonoma Valley High School in 1978, and quickly began to rise in the ranks in the administrative office. During the early years of her career, she was certainly aware she wasn’t always treated the same as her male counterparts. But that wasn’t anything like the sexism she experienced when she became one of the first women admitted to the Navy’s exclusive F/A-18 program, commonly known as “TOPGUN.”
“I could tell the men didn’t like me,” she said.
The program was somewhat forcibly opened to women after the 1991 Tailhook scandal, in which more than 100 Navy and Marine Corps members allegedly sexually assaulted 83 women and seven men during a Las Vegas symposium. Ambrose was one of the first women to set foot on the U.S.S. Nimitz, the Navy’s famed supercarrier, with Strike Fighter Squadron 146, known as the “Blue Diamonds.”
“It was a man’s world, and the men didn’t want change,” she said, adding that the ship deployed in 1996 with a crew of about 6,000. “Only 300 were women. It was a really hard time, a lot of growing pains.”
The ship headed to the Persian Gulf to provide support during Operation Southern Watch. When the Chinese began testing missiles, Ambrose was on board as the Nimitz became the first American ship to sail the Taiwan Straits since 1976. But all the while, it was a daily struggle for respect and, at times, a fight for safety. Sexual assaults were almost routine.