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Rising through the Seabee Ranks: A Woman of Many Firsts

RISING THROUGH THE SEABEE RANKS: A WOMAN OF MANY FIRSTS

by Katherine L. Gregory, P.E.

Senior Vice President for University Services, Iowa State University
Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
Member, CEC/Seabee Historical Foundation Board of Trustees

I know what it’s like to be the first to do something. Throughout my Navy career I’ve been the first woman offered the opportunity to serve in many positions (commanding and executive officer of an active duty Seabee battalion; commander of NAFVAC Pacific; chief of the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps [CEC] commander of NAVFAC). I was the first woman in many positions throughout my career and it never seemed like a big deal.

As a Navy officer I’ve traveled the world and had more opportunities than I ever imagined. It’s been rewarding to serve my country, and I take great pride in opening doors for the many women who entered the service after me.

Growing up in St. Louis, the fifth of six kids, I had a storybook childhood. Our parents, both educators, taught us that there were no limits to what we could accomplish if we applied ourselves. We played sports, joined clubs, and worked hard in school.

My older siblings went off to colleges and universities, but I wanted something different. So I applied to the U.S. Naval Academy. When I was accepted, of course I was going. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. Quite frankly, I didn’t fully appreciate what it meant to go to the Naval Academy and then really be in the Navy. My teenage brain did not put that together.

Graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy.

I entered the Academy in 1978, one of about 96 women in my class of 1,500. There were about 200 total women at the Academy then, and about 4,300 men. We didn’t know what to expect and at times it was rough. A core group in the military didn’t think women belonged there and were quite vocal about it. This taught me a lot about the crowd mentality, and how people are marginalized and manipulated. At the same time, so much of the male leadership was supportive and encouraging. It made me and others realize we deserved to be there. No one was going to push us out of the way. I majored in general engineering, rowed on the crew team, and ran track and cross-country, making many friends along the way. In your junior year you approach service selection, deciding what branch of the military to enter. During this time women had fewer opportunities. I learned about the CEC from a mentor, a civil engineer and former Seabee named Captain Lowery. The CEC seemed like a great way to utilize my engineering skills and prepare for life when I got out of the Navy—which at that time I intended to do very quickly.

Ribbon cutting in Japan in 1982

Kate with Amphibious Construction Battalion 1 in 1987

I was accepted into the CEC and my first assignments were in Japan and Italy, serving under great leaders who made you feel that the Navy was a place where you could succeed, have adventure, and do good things. My military obligation was for five years and at the four-year mark I considered leaving. But then I learned the Seabees were accepting women right into their ranks. I knew that if I left the Navy without having this experience, I’d regret it.

I began my first tour with the Seabees in 1986, serving as a company commander with Amphibious Construction Battalion 1. I was the only woman officer among a handful of enlisted women. We participated in exercises with Navy ships and trained with the Marines on amphibious activities. I loved the energy, the excitement, and the mission. I wanted to be viewed as equal to my male counterparts and worked hard to stay fit and do everything right so no one could say, ‘Girls can’t do this stuff.’

One construction project took us to Central America, where everything went wrong. The materials we brought were not appropriate for the site and we had to start from scratch and build in a different way than we had planned for. Our Seabees improvised and got the job done on schedule. This assignment taught me to always expect things to go wrong—because they probably will. I also learned that when you stand back and let dedicated people do their jobs, they’ll solve any problem.

Over the next years I obtained graduate degrees in construction management and systems management, spent time at headquarters in Washington, DC, and took on various assignments around the world. One of the most formative was my tour to Adak, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands, in 1994. I didn’t go there eagerly. The Navy base was tiny, with no town or civilians, and the tour was unaccompanied—no families went along. A barge brought food and supplies once a month and a few planes flew in only if the weather was good. Being in such a remote location disrupts your life and your relationships. But it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I couldn’t turn down.

This tour ended up being a great experience that also tested my ability to lead. A bad storm hit after Christmas and we lost our power and water. When you’re on a small island in heavy, whiteout snow, with no electricity or drinking water—that’s a bad day. Looking back, I realize I matured here, and began to appreciate the responsibility leaders have. If I didn’t do my job well, people might suffer. My team pulled together and we weathered this storm intact. I learned the importance of staying cool under pressure, counting on each other, and giving the best of myself.

Over the years I rose through the Navy ranks. In 1995 I became the first woman XO (executive officer) in an active duty battalion based in Gulfport, Mississippi. In 2005 I spent a year as a Department of Defense fellow at utility company Georgia Power, where I learned to incorporate business practices into DOD. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, I was on the Gulf Coast helping with emergency operations, another life-changing experience. Seeing human tragedy up close, the Seabees and the power industry offered help at a time when it was greatly needed.

In 2008 I began another assignment as chief of staff for the First Naval Construction Division. While supporting the war effort in Iraq, we relocated four Seabee battalions from Iraq to Afghanistan, a massive logistics effort that enabled construction of combat outposts, roads, and other facilities for Army and Marine units. In 2010 I was part of the Navy’s effort to coordinate humanitarian relief efforts following the Haiti earthquake.

Approaching the pinnacle of my career, in 2010 I became commander of NAVFAC Pacific. We supported the move of the Marines from Okinawa to Guam, a $10 billion effort. When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, I deployed with the Navy’s team there to manage recovery operations with the PAC fleet. I returned to Washington, DC in 2012 to become chief of the CEC and commander of NAVFAC. After that tour it was time to retire, which I did in 2015.

All these experiences sum up why I stayed in the Navy: to be able to contribute, work with great people, and make a difference. The average person never runs into such opportunities in everyday life. Serving with the Seabees let me do things I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to do, see places I’d never see, and work with great people who are drawn to those same opportunities.

Returning to my roots in the Midwest, I moved to Ames, Iowa, to be near family. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. Within a few months opportunity came knocking again. As senior vice president for university services at Iowa State, I oversee facilities, contracting, security, and environmental health and safety, work that is similar to what I did in the Navy. I feel fortunate to be here. Higher education and the military share some things in common: they are large, complex organizations focused on serving the community and teaching young people.

I’m still deeply connected to the Seabees and grateful for the strong foundation they provided me. As a member of the CEC/Seabee Historical Foundation board of trustees and a Diamond Anniversary Ambassador, I’m a strong supporter of the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum in Port Hueneme, CA. In recognition of their 75th anniversary, the Seabees have launched a fundraising campaign to add state-of-the-art exhibits to the museum.

The Seabees who came before me did great things and set an excellent example for others to follow. Wherever they go, they make things better and show others around the world what the U.S. is all about. The museum is a showcase for all they’ve accomplished. The Seabees’ legacy reminds us of all the good a person can do. If we don’t highlight these examples of service, they are lost to us forever.

The museum will also serve to remind people about the many career opportunities the Seabees offer both men and women. If I’d never met Captain Lowery, I wouldn’t have become a Seabee. Imagine what I would have missed.

Please lend your support to the Diamond Anniversary campaign. Click here to make a contribution.

7 Comments
  1. Thank you for all you have done for this country, and the Seabees.

  2. Thanks.

  3. Good Afternoon & Congratulations Admiral Gregory!
    What an amazing military career! My name is Chris Trailer Jr. My father served in the Seabees in World War II in the Pacific with the 17th Seabee battalion. I, myself, served in the U.S. Army (reserve), but I’ve always related and respected what my Dad and his fellow sailors did in serving our country.
    I follow the Seabee Museum with pride (via my Dad’s service) and wanted to take just a moment to congratulate you, not only on your remarkable record and service history, but also your position on the Board of Trustees for the CEC/Seabee Historical Foundation!
    Thank you for your service.
    Chris

  4. Impressive career, Admiral. Glad to have played a minor role in it.

  5. This is something I have been working on for all Seabees and divers. Someday I will get them all complete.

    Regards
    Bruce

    https://www.dropbox.com/sh/t1om0oa1ygb9pzx/AADJeoM4fG_PVWOOHN8IdV_Ia?dl=0

  6. Katherine Gregory,
    That is quite a story, and you lived up to your potential; opening up the ranks for many other women in the future. I know you are doing a fantastic job at the University of Iowa. God bless you as you move forward in whatever endeavor you pursue.

  7. Dear Admiral Gregory;
    I’m trying to use this to invite you to be our guest speaker at our 2018 reunion in Washington DC. As I have been trying to get in touch with you through various other means, including thru the Commanding Officer of Group 2 and Bill Hildebrand of the CEC/Seabee Historical Foundation. With no luck so far. We are predominately former members of “The Better Than Best” NMCB 3. Most all of us are Vietnam Veterans. We would be honored if you would be our guest at our Reunion. If you would be so inclined as to accept or want information I can be reached at my email address. I believe that both officers mentioned can vouch for us. Along with the Commanding Officer of CBC Gulfport. Your accomplishments are to be commended. There have been so many changes since we were in. Our website is http://www.seabee3.org

    Sincerely;
    Victor Horvath
    President NMCB 3 VRA

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