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Finding My Path: Officer, Engineer and Business Leader

Finding My Path: Officer, Engineer and
Business Leader

by Leticia Soto-Daniels
Vice President/Sustainability & Asset Management
Program Manager, HDR Inc.
Board Member, CEC/Seabee Historical Foundation
Seabee Diamond Anniversary Ambassador

Throughout my professional life, I’ve worked in positions that have historically been held by men. My first job, as an electrician for the U.S. Navy Seabees, was hardly a typical female occupation. That was the start of my Navy career, and what a wonderful ride it’s been! The Navy gave me a great education and sent me across the U.S. and around the world: to Italy, Okinawa, Kuwait, Iraq, Cuba—even to MIT. I retired from the military after 22 years of service to work in private industry, and even now, I’m frequently the only woman in the room. I have the skills and confidence to succeed and for that I thank the Navy.

I’ve always chosen my own path, as my parents can tell you. Growing up in Indiana, I was one of six children—the rebellious, headstrong one. My dad worked in a steel mill, and my mom was a teacher. They valued education, so you can imagine their reaction when I begged them to let me join the Navy. I was only 17 and about to graduate from high school.

My parents supported my decision even though I’m sure they would have preferred that I attend college like my brothers and sisters. They knew I needed guidance and hoped I’d find it in the Navy. So they signed the forms and off I went, first to boot camp in Orlando, A-School, then to my first duty station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In Cuba, I met people from all walks of life, a wonderful experience for a small-town girl. It was good, hard work and I trained to be an electrician. But even more important, I learned the real value of an education.

It was the early 1990s, and thousands of Haitians were traveling to Guantanamo to flee the violent aftermath of a coup. The Seabees were building camps and helping with the resettlement. I wanted to be a part of that so I became a Seabee, a construction electrician. That’s when I found my passion for the Seabees and all they did.

A young Leticia gets her camouflage face paint
applied by a fellow Bee.

After 18 months in Guantanamo I was sent to Naples, Italy, to support the emergency power system for the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station. It was another unique learning experience. The Navy has come a long way, but back then it was male-dominated, offering limited opportunities for women to serve in Naval Mobile Construction Battalions. There were few female Seabees. I’ll be honest: at times it was hard and I felt frustrated. But in the face of these challenges the military was always supportive. I never felt females were pushed to the back. In fact, my experience was quite the contrary.

As enlisted personnel we had regular counseling sessions with our superiors, and that’s when my Chief Petty Officer offered life-changing advice. He told me I should focus on my personal growth by taking college courses. I had already taken some classes, but he pushed me to do even more, suggesting that I apply to the Enlisted Commissioning Program (ECP), a path to becoming an officer. Applying for this program required an associate’s degree.

My next stop was the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport, MS. Shortly after my arrival I was notified I had been selected for the ECP-Civil Engineer Corps Option and I was off to Purdue University, where I earned my bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 2000.

I was commissioned as an Ensign with the Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) and was sent to Lemoore, CA, as a project manager overseeing construction. The Super Hornet aircraft program was expanding and Lemoore was undergoing a growth spurt, building hangars, runways, housing, even a child development center. By now I was a mother of two and juggling everything was sometimes difficult. But I thrived in another great opportunity to learn and build leadership and communication skills. After Lemoore I went to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5 in Port Hueneme, CA, where I had the most rewarding tour of my naval career. I deployed twice, to Okinawa, Japan, with the main body and with a detachment to Kuwait and Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom III.

I was closely bonded with the Seabees—I think my time as an enlisted Seabee gave me ‘street credit.’ I’d walked in their shoes and now I was in a position to give back. I went out of my way to help them whenever I could. During my tour with NMCB 5, I worked with Seabees who had an unsurpassed work ethic and espirit di corps. I briefly served with the Chief Petty Officer who had given me the best advice ever: to get my education. He’d risen to the Command Master Chief for NMCB 5 and I was a Company Commander. How far we’d all come.

Lieutenant Commander
Soto-Daniels with fellow
CEC Officers.

Once home from deployment I was selected to attend graduate school and attended MIT. Being around such brilliant people was intimidating but inspiring. What I may have lacked in genius I made up for in hard work, earning my master’s degree in systems design in 2007. This gave me the ‘big picture’ overview of how systems work in large projects and prepared me for my next assignment at Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Mid Atlantic in Norfolk, VA, where I supported the world’s largest naval base.

In 2005 I was deployed to Iraq to plan for the closure of bases as U.S. forces drew down their operations. The logistics were enormous—evaluating what property we had, what equipment would we take, and how we would ship it. I worked with two other engineers developing a model and timeline for this project and later we published it in Industrial Engineering magazine.

I retired from the Navy in 2012 to enter private industry. As an engineer at HDR, I support the Department of Defense, overseeing our federal asset management practice, of which many are Navy contracts. The Seabees are involved in some of my projects so I feel I’ve come full circle.

Leticia receives her
Certificate of Retirement
from the U.S. Navy in 2012.

I have great respect for the Seabees and everything they do. Their work ethic aligns with my own: hard work pays off. Whether you’re male or female, when you go the distance, your efforts will be recognized. That’s the way the Seabees are—they work hard and support each other. It’s been a great foundation for me and now I want to give back.

In March 2017 the Seabees will celebrate their 75th anniversary. To commemorate this milestone, the CEC’s Diamond Anniversary Campaign is raising funds for the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum in Port Hueneme. The money will be used to add state-of-the-art, interactive exhibits that allow us to recognize the Seabees’ many accomplishments. I’m now a member of the CEC/Seabee Historical Foundation board of directors and a Diamond Anniversary Ambassador, and I support this effort.

STEM skills are at the core of everything I do and are also at the core of what the Seabees do. As a 17-year-old girl I never imagined that technology and STEM would be a part of my future. I know from experience that this knowledge opens many doors to rewarding careers. Your support of this museum will inspire the next generation, men and women, to master these all-important skills.

Please consider supporting the Diamond Anniversary campaign. Click here to make a contribution.

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