Commanding Attention

Capt. Mary M. Jackson, Commanding Officer of Naval Station Norfolk, concentrates on her (big) job not her gender.

Captain Mary M. Jackson, Commanding Officer of Naval Station Norfolk.

Tall, blue-eyed and dressed in summer whites, Capt. Mary M. Jackson, USN, smiles warmly as she gives me a firm handshake. Given her responsibilities, Jackson might be expected to be intent and tightly wound; after all, she isn’t just the first female Commanding Officer, or CO, of Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base, she is running one of the U.S. military’s most important installations—home to 64 ships (including five aircraft carriers), 54,000 military personnel and 14,000 civilians. And yet her easy-going personality suggests an officer comfortable in a hugely demanding role.

That is because Jackson, who assumed her duties as CO last August, doesn’t get caught up in superficial issues; her leadership philosophy is strictly pragmatic. “I don’t think about gender in the workplace,” she says. “I personally try to focus on the job at hand. If I do that, things tend to fall into place.” Jackson, 45, says she tries to look at each person as a “unique individual that comes to the workplace with incredible talents.” She acknowledges that, as a woman, she “probably communicates a little differently” than a male CO would. “But I also think that I have made some adjustments from having been around a lot of men. You learn you can’t dwell on things. You have to tackle [problems] and move forward.”

So how does this CO spend her days? “The mission of Naval Station Norfolk is to support the fleet,” says Jackson, who oversees 380 tenant commands—Navy-speak for the various units on base whose personnel are assigned to ships, aviation squadrons and shore commands. As one might expect, her days are filled with administrative and operational tasks, along with sundry ceremonial duties. She also represents Naval Station Norfolk in the community, giving speeches and participating on transportation and maritime planning boards. She credits her “incredible” team for helping her to manage everything. Jackson says that she also gets out and around the base frequently, if only to observe. “This is a very large base with a lot of people and operations. You don’t want to miss anything.” She adds: “The most predictable thing [about my job] is that everything is unpredictable.” Somehow you get the feeling she likes it that way.

Jackson brings a broad perspective to her job. She was born in Spain, spent the first year of her life in Liberia and then lived for 15 years in Saudi Arabia. Her father, a geologist, worked for the U. S. Geological Survey; her mother was a cartographer and homemaker. Jackson describes them as “pioneers and adventurers,” adding: “We took a lot of fascinating trips that contributed to who I am today.” She graduated from high school in Texas, then earned a BS in science with an emphasis in oceanography from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1988. (She also holds a master’s degree in engineering management.) Her first sea tour was in USS WILLAMETTE, homeported in Pearl Harbor, and several other tours followed. Jackson served as CO of USS MCFAUL (a guided-missile destroyer) from June 2006 to November 2008. Before that assignment she had several positions of increasing responsibility ashore. She was named Executive Officer at Naval Station Norfolk in April 2009, and got her promotion a little more than a year later.

Asked to name her biggest challenges, Jackson mentions two. While on her executive officer tour just after 9/11, she had to leave her young daughter with a relative for several months, as her husband—a Coast Guard officer recalled to active duty—was deployed. “It was very difficult to know that neither mom nor dad was there for her,” says Jackson. More generally, she says that watching some sailors go through difficult experiences—an injury or a traumatic episode like the 2000 attack on the USS COLE—can be tough. “Most sailors tackle such experiences with grace and succeed in the end, but some do not. We are a team, and when a member of the team falls out, it can be deeply disappointing.”

What keeps her up at night? “The volume [of work] and what you don’t know,” says Jackson. “It’s fascinating and frustrating at the same time.”

Jackson says women have helped the U.S. military, if only because “[they] increase the talent pool.” Everyone who seeks a Navy career is more educated nowadays, and while the promotion process is competitive, there are more opportunities for those who join. “Our emphasis is on higher education for our sailors as well as on more life balance and the integration of personal and professional goals.” Those factors have propelled Jackson’s own career. “I am very proud the Navy has afforded me the opportunity to serve our country, to serve with sailors, and to do this while having a life,” she says. “I have a husband who’s a professional and two kids who are pretty darn normal.”

What’s next? Predictably, Jackson does not like to look too far down the road. She is happy to be in Norfolk again, after first being stationed to the area in 1994. “I think of Norfolk as home in many respects. It’s a great community.” Otherwise, she says: “I’m a big believer in growing where you’re planted. I like to focus on today.”  

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