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Remembering the forgotten: female veterans’ service is often overlooked

MASTER CHIEF PETTY OFFICER (Ret.) June Ambrose with one of the few mementos she kept from her 23 years in the Navy. (Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)

MASTER CHIEF PETTY OFFICER (Ret.) June Ambrose with one of the few mementos she kept from her 23 years in the Navy. (Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)

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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.

“(The men) thought we were there for them when they wanted to go blow off steam at the end of the day … In my time, you just sucked it up. If you wanted to be promoted, you didn’t say anything. Most of the time, no one would believe you anyway,” she said. “I am so proud of my younger sisters today for not keeping quiet.”

For two years she stayed on the ship, watching injustices pile up in the administrative office. As an E8, near the top of the Navy’s pay-scale, she had seniority and didn’t experience as much prejudice, but eventually, it became too much to bear. Ambrose remembers her last straw, after a 19-year-old female private was caught having an affair with a more senior officer.

“She was single, he was married. We dishonorably discharged her, and he got promoted. That’s just one of hundreds of stories,” she said. “But that was when I knew, for my own sanity, I had to get out.”

It’s a memory that still stings – she sometimes feels like she should have done more in her position to stand up for women’s rights. But despite the dark days, she called her military career one of the highlights of her life.

“I got to be catapulted off a carrier. I water-skied in the ocean in the Philippines. I got to do so many fun things,” she said, explaining that eventually it was too hard to be away from her young son. “During the two-year work up, I only saw my son for three months. It got to the point where I was like, ‘Why am I leaving my son behind to deal with you people?’”

So, in 1997 she retired from the Navy. Aside from her small military portrait, she holds onto few reminders of her years of service. But she has been reinvigorated joining the efforts of the VFW. She is now working to bring to Sonoma a conference of support services for veterans, known as a stand-down, exclusively for female vets in 2014.

“We need a lot of women veterans to come forward, I really don’t want the men to put this on. It should be women,” she said, adding that it’s been hard to find other women who served in Sonoma. “When I’m going around town, I ask people, ‘Do you know any female vets?’ I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘Yes.’ So I stick out my hand and say, ‘Now you do.’”