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Rear Admiral Martha Herb talks to Shereen Ali about her US Navy career at the Hyatt Regency hotel, Port of Spain, Trinidad, in June 2016.

Woman at the helm

Rear Admiral Martha Herb speaks about her career in the US Navy

By SHEREEN ANN ALI.  First published T&T Guardian, June 21, 2016.

“You have people who don’t want to accept you. You have the old dinosaurs who go: ‘Women can’t do that. They belong in the home, or taking care of babies,’ or ‘They’re limited.’ And then you have those people who have been exposed to women who can do it all. And they go: ‘OK, they can do it.' And this is really about all of us being an equal force in getting the mission done. And so you just persevere, no matter what hiccups you come up against.” - Martha Herb

She’s a fit grandmother, a trained salvage scuba diver, and a Rear Admiral in the US Navy. She was also the director of the Washington DC-based Inter-American Defense College, a place where high-level military men, police and senior government officials from South America and the region go to learn more about the “political, economic, psychosocial and military factors of power.” So it’s safe to say that Rear Admiral Martha Herb is no shrinking violet—even though she has a gentle Southern lilt to her voice.


Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Martha Herb’s sense of adventure and purpose led her into a career very unconventional for women in the 1970s. At first she studied for an arts degree in English and French, and began teaching school. But then she visited a recruiter’s office, where the sight of an exciting diving photograph spoke to her.


“My mother suggested that I join the military. So I went into the recruiter’s office, and I saw a magazine cover with a Navy diver on the front. So I looked at the recruiter and I said: ‘I want to do that.’ I had never dived, but I was a nationally ranked swimmer and very comfortable in the water. He goes: ‘Well they’ve just opened it up for women.’”


Commissioned through Officer Training School in 1979, Herb soon became one of the first three women officers to graduate from the Naval School of Diving and Salvage in Washington DC as a Diving and Salvage officer. She also became a Surface Warfare officer, whose responsibility is to ensure Navy ships operate smoothly.


She served on active duty in diving commands in the early 80s, before transferring to the Reserve Component in 1983 in order to start a family with her husband, who was also a Navy salvage diver. She later completed five command tours, did support work in NATO for a US military delegation, achieved Flag rank in 2010, and served in Afghanistan as chief of the Military Technical Agreement Branch, on the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).


As she paced in an upstairs lobby (in June 2016) speaking crisply into a cellphone, her fair hair framing a face that’s lined with experience, Herb seemed self-possessed, confident and forthright, a person accustomed to both leadership and teamwork.


Women in Military & Security Conference

Herb was visiting T&T for the Women in Military & Security Conference held June 13-17, 2016, where she was both a guest speaker and an attentive listener to experts and representatives from US partner nations from as far north as Canada to as far south as Uruguay. Co-hosted by the US Southern Command (which is based in Florida, one of nine combat groups in the US Department of Defense) and the T&T Defence Force, the goal of the conference was to support new initiatives on the advancement of women in regional military and security forces.


Herb said all women in male-dominated military and security jobs face common, at times challenging experiences.


“You have people who don’t want to accept you. You have the old dinosaurs who go: ‘Women can’t do that. They belong in the home, or taking care of babies,’ or ‘They’re limited.’ And then you have those people who have been exposed to women who can do it all. And they go: ‘Ok, they can do it.' And this is really about all of us being an equal force in getting the mission done. And so you just persevere, no matter what hiccups you come up against.”


She said it was important for women to not only be self-motivated, but to recognise their own talents. Historically, a small number of women have always fought in wars, often in disguise as men. During the two World Wars, many women worked as nurses, cleaners, cooks and clerical staff for the armed forces. And many also worked in munitions plants for war industries, and in various resistance movements. But the idea of women in combat has been controversial. In the US, it was not until 1976 that the first group of women was admitted.


Today, according to January 2015 data on a US Department of Defense webpage, there are more than 200,000 US women now in active duty military positions (about 15 per cent of the US active duty force of 1.4 million). Ninety per cent of US military jobs are now open to women, and about 16 per cent of US officer corps are women, including Navy admirals and US Army and Air Force generals. So the US armed forces provide viable career options for some women who are so inclined.


US military spending

Diverse career options for women exist in the US military in part because of the large size and funding of the US armed forces, which consists of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard.


In 2016, the United States was set to spend an annual budget of about US $602 billion to fund its base defence and war operations, according to a June 14, 2016 article by Joe Gould, posted on the Defense News website ( Gould was reporting on the US Senate's recent approval of the annual defence bill, pending any veto by then-US President Obama.


The US accounted for 37 per cent of the world's total military expenditure of US$1.6 trillion in 2015, according to data from the National Priorities Project. US industries of defence, warfare and related military technologies are an important part of that country's economy.


War is big business. Companies like Lockheed Martin (which makes the F-35 strike fighter plane), Boeng (which makes helicopters, drones, strike aircraft fighters, missiles), Northrup Gruman (it makes drones, and does work in cyber security), General Dynamics (which makes battle tanks, ships, munitions, communications systems, nuclear-powered Navy submarines), Hewlett-Packard (which makes defence communications—Navy Marine Corps Internet), and many other firms all benefit from US government contracts and arms sales, according to a 2012 Business Insider article listing the top 25 defence firms in the US.


Learning from the bottom up

All this funding is good news for US women keen on military careers, who have the skills, desire and tenacity to benefit from the US military system. For Rear Admiral Martha Herb, a Navy career was attractive, and she started out more than 30 years ago literally below the bottoms of ships, using her dive salvage training.


“Ship’s husbandry was my specialty—kind of like (being) a car mechanic below the waterline,” she said, laughing. “So I had wonderful jobs like cleaning systems, propeller screw changes, cleaning the bottoms of ships—patches and plugs.”


“Salvage work is about mishaps at sea,” she explained. “It can be recovering ships, it can be recovering the black boxes from planes, it can be body recovery.”


“The industry has changed very much within the US Navy since I first came in. So where we had a number of salvage ships and we were able to have our own ships to deploy on and do that kind of work, (now) it’s morphed into a different community—the ships are now in MSC—Military Sealift Command—and so there’s a lot of commercial seamen and contracts involved,” said Herb.


On the lighter side, though, diving has taken her to some unusual places.


“I’ve done some work with National Parks Services, diving on wrecks. I dove on the Arizona and the Utah with the BBC. That was a lot of fun. I’ve done ice diving with the Canadians. And some underwater archaeology.”


Has Herb ever had conflicts of conscience between her early training as an educator, and her later role as an officer of warfare?


“Not at all. Your life’s a tapestry. You get different colours at different points ... and they don’t quite make sense. But then … it creates a beautiful picture and you see how it all has come together. So: an educator early on, then diving and salvage with the Navy. I transitioned to the Reserves when I had children... Then I got a doctorate in education specialising in counselling of military families... That helped when I went to Afghanistan; it became a wonderful asset to have just in talking with our troops, listening to people’s stories, helping them resolve the difficulty of being in a war zone.”


“We have an obligation to provide for our societies and to give them a safe environment where they can excel, where they can have the opportunities, where they can create, where they can innovate. There’s not a lot of people who will volunteer to do that mission. And so I have been gifted, and it’s up to me to use every asset that I have to its fullest potential. And for me, it’s involved not only doing the military mission at peace, but also at war.”


In her former role as Director of the Inter-American Defense College, Herb encountered many leading influencers in Central America, South America and the Caribbean. The IADC operates under the Organisation of American States (founded 1948 by the US) and the Inter-American Defense Board. The IADC’s flagship mission is to run an 11-month graduate programme to provide "training and critical thinking skills for senior military and government officials" through a study of governmental systems, international relations, and regional security issues.

When she was not hard at work, however, Rear Admiral Herb’s greatest delight remains her family. “I have two wonderful children, a wonderful husband, I have a family, which is very, very important to me, and I have two grandchildren and a third on the way. And so that’s probably the most exciting thing I do. At this point in my career, that’s refreshing. Because you see this is a new generation—and it’s their turn.”

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