By Brad Lendon, Blake Essig and Emiko Jozuka, CNN
Amy Bauernschmidt is the rarest of the rare.
The 51-year-old is in a select group of United States Navy officers: The commanders of the 11 aircraft carriers in the US fleet.
Capt. Bauernschmidt is the only woman in that group. In fact, she’s the only woman ever to command a US aircraft carrier, the largest and among the most powerful warships afloat.
“(It’s) easily one of the most incredible jobs in the world,” she told CNN.
Most people would consider that an understatement.
Bauernschmidt commands the USS Abraham Lincoln, a 97,000-ton, 1,092-foot Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. With around 5,000 people aboard, it’s the equivalent of a small city at sea.
It’s also one of the centerpieces of US military might. More than 60 aircraft are aboard the Lincoln, including F-35C stealth fighters, the most advanced warplanes in naval aviation.
US aircraft carriers “are ready to control the sea, conduct strikes, and maneuver across the electromagnetic spectrum and cyberspace. No other naval force fields a commensurate range and depth of combat capabilities,” a US Navy fact sheet says.
“In times of crisis, the first question leaders ask is: ‘Where are the carriers?'” the fact sheet says.
Bauernschmidt says answering that call is a privilege.
“There’s absolutely no more humbling sense of responsibility than to know that I was selected to lead the men and women that have chosen (to) defend our nation,” she told reporters on a recent visit to the warship during maneuvers off Japan.
Growing up in Milwaukee, Bauernschmidt knew she had an affinity for the sea. “I have always loved the water, and swam and rowed competitively,” she says. But joining the Navy was more practicality than ambition.
“I came upon my service in a roundabout way.” she says. “I knew I would be paying for my college education and I wanted to find a major I was not only interested in pursuing but would allow me to find a job to repay student loans.”
With a strong interest in math and science, and that love of the water, she settled on a major in ocean engineering.
Only a handful of colleges offered it, the US Naval Academy in Maryland being one. With tuition paid, it was the choice for Bauernschmidt.
But when she arrived at the campus in Annapolis, the thought of being the first woman to command an aircraft carrier wasn’t even something she thought possible.
“Absolutely not. I didn’t even understand this was an option when I first started on this adventure,” Bauernschmidt says.
When she entered the Naval Academy, it wasn’t an option.
It was only in November of 1993 — six months before Bauernschmidt’s graduation from that Naval Academy — that Congress passed legislation allowing women to serve on US Navy combatant ships.
That “changed almost everything about women’s service in the Navy,” Bauernschmidt says.
A few months before graduation, Naval Academy midshipmen are allowed to request their first assignments. Bauernschmidt chose aviation and began the path to her current command.
She learned to fly helicopters, became a flight instructor, deployed on destroyers and aircraft carriers and eventually commanded a helicopter strike squadron.
She then attended the Naval War College, earning a Masters degree in strategic studies before serving in the US Secretary of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.
After that Bauernschmidt attended the Navy’s Nuclear Power School, learning the science and engineering behind naval nuclear power plants in what Naval Sea Systems Command calls “the most demanding academic program in the US military.”
She’d need that knowledge aboard the Lincoln, which is powered by two nuclear reactors, as she became the executive officer, the second in command, in 2016.
Almost five years later, after a stint commanding the amphibious transport dock USS San Diego, Bauernschmidt took command of the Abraham Lincoln.
“Each new job and opportunity strengthened my leadership, and challenged me to be the best version of myself,” Bauernschmidt says.
“I’ve had a phenomenal career where I’ve been given incredible opportunities.”
Even jobs she didn’t really want were opportunities, she says.
“Sometimes you will learn the most and grow the most in a situation or job you did not want to be in or to do.
“Not every job I’ve done in the Navy is a job I wanted, but I learned and took everything out of every job I could,” Bauernschmidt says.
Even though she’s risen to a powerful position, Bauernschmidt acknowledges the many challenges still faced by women in the Navy.
As of December 31, only 20% of the Navy’s active duty force of 342,000 personnel are women, according to the service’s demographic data.
As a Department of the Navy gender relations survey from February relates, “social media is filled with anecdotes and shared experiences about instances of sexism, discrimination, accessing help, and reporting and seeking justice for sexual harassment and sexual assault. It’s clear there are challenges that must be overcome for meaningful change.”
“These are challenges bigger than the military,” Bauernschmidt says. “We constantly work to improve the environment and sailor programs to support our most important resource — our people during their careers.”
At Bauernschmidt’s rank of captain and above, the Navy’s gender gap is even more stark. Only 13% of those 3,075 officers are women, Navy data shows.
So Bauernschmidt does feel an extra sense of responsibility as the first woman to command an aircraft carrier, but she seems to see it as evolutionary, not revolutionary.
“While women have accomplished a lot, I look forward to the day we don’t have to celebrate firsts,” she says.
Bauernschmidt says support she’s had from the entire Navy community was crucial in getting her to that bridge on one of the biggest warships in the world. And she says she’s still learning now.
“Overcoming any challenge for me starts with ownership — know your job and do your job to the utmost of your ability every day. It is hard to argue with someone doing exceptional work supporting the mission and the team,” she says.
The thousands of sailors she leads challenge her and keep her growing, she says.
“Leadership is hard,” Bauernschmidt says.
“To effectively lead a team, department, or command, you have to understand the organization and yourself. You have to meet them where they need a leader and you have to know yourself well enough to know how to meet them where they are,” she says.
Her advice to those under her command, and to anyone with aspirations: follow through on a daily basis.
“I try not to just complete a task, but own the outcome of my work,” she says.
For inspiration herself, she quotes an NFL superstar, Arizona Cardinals defensive end JJ Watt: “Success isn’t owned, it’s leased and rent is due every day!”
Pay that rent, and you might find yourself with one of the rarest jobs in the world: commander of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
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