By Lt. j.g. Jan Ingram
Assistant Operations Officer, Destroyer Squadron 7
I have always strived for a life of service and believe life is about the people I am blessed to encounter. Whether the encounter led to someone becoming a close friend or just a smile exchanged, these moments are meaningful to me. Grateful to my country and for the thousands of men and women that came before me, especially those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, I knew military service was the right fit for me.
I began my journey in the United States Navy in 2011 on USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) in Yokosuka, Japan, where I spent two and a half years working and traveling throughout 7th Fleet. I thoroughly enjoyed my first tour in Asia and decided I would do my second tour in 7th Fleet as well—this time, heading nearly 3,200 miles southeast to a newly stood-up destroyer squadron (DESRON) command.
Forward-deployed to Southeast Asia, one of DESRON 7’s responsibilities is the planning and execution of the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) bilateral exercise series with Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and Timor Leste. While I had visited most of these countries on Blue Ridge, the CARAT series opened up new opportunities to work hand-in-hand with our partner nations in the region.
The most recent, and final, exercise of CARAT 2014 allowed me to work closely with the Royal Brunei Armed Forces. This was my first trip to Brunei Darussalam and I had only read briefly about the small country located on the island of Borneo. However, I did know that Brunei is one of our partners in Southeast Asia that is leading the way integrating women into their armed forces.
Unique to CARAT Brunei, a Female Engagement Team Symposium was planned and I was tapped to lead the event. I put together a detailed sequence of events and several standby discussion topics beforehand, even though I knew the main objective was to have an open conversation with our counterparts. While differences in our service policies and procedures were bound to come up in discussion, my hope was for us to not only talk about what it’s like to be a woman in the Navy, but to recognize that even though we wear different uniforms, our innate desire to serve our country is what drove us to join the military.
The symposium took place on the first day of the exercise and included 10 women from the U.S. Navy and 15 women from the RBAF. The group was comprised of all different backgrounds, religions, ages, ethnicities and professions, yet upon entering the room you could feel the electricity and might’ve even mistaken it for a high school reunion as we made instant connections.
What struck me most was what came by first overlooking assumptions and the raw dialogue and interaction that quickly followed suit—all without the help of my prep work. We found similarities in challenges that we faced not only in our workplace but also in our daily lives. We discussed topics such as pregnancy—which up until the mid-1970’s resulted in a discharge for women in the U.S. Navy—and learned it is a challenge the RBAF is working to refine. While our Navy welcomed its first female pilot in 1974, women in Brunei began attending Officer Candidate School in 2010 and the country’s first female military pilot received her wings in 2012. Additionally, women in the RBAF are not allowed in combat roles, which is a policy that our own military continues working through even today, more than 65 years since President Harry Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act.
This experience not only taught me a lot about the RBAF, but it caused me to reflect on how far the U.S. Navy has come with the integration of women in our own force. It made me appreciate the women who served before me, who challenged the norm and broke boundaries. And I recognized that no matter our cultures or country, there are similarities and challenges that we are all working through as women, but at the end of the day, we have chosen to serve our countries and that’s what will bind us together forever.
A wise woman in Brunei told me to never lose yourself and remember where you came from. Thank you to the beautiful women of Brunei for reminding me where I came from and of the others who came before me. I am pleased to say I left Brunei with a mixture of pride, gratitude and humility as a Sailor serving in the U.S. Navy.