Kimberly Jones was in her third year of studying mechanical engineering as an undergraduate student at Tuskegee University in Alabama.
“I had done a couple of internships, I had done a co-op . . . there was just something missing, and that corporate route of engineering just didn’t get me out of bed in the morning,” said Jones. “I was in the mindset of entertaining something different, and the rest is 19 years of service history.”
There are currently more than 11,000 Surface Warfare Officers (SWOs) serving on active duty. Of those, approximately 21 percent are women. And of those women, four are currently serving as commanding officers of East Coast dock landing ships (LSDs).
Commanders Kristel O’Cañas, USS Whidbey Island; Kimberly Jones, USS Tortuga; LaDonna Simpson, USS Carter Hall; and Kathryn Wijnaldum, USS Oak Hill lead their respective crews of roughly 400 sailors and marines aboard dock landing ships – amphibious vessels which transport marines and their equipment ashore. Jones assumed command in July 2020, O’Cañas and Wijnaldum in September 2020, and Simpson, most recently January 2021.
The naval service of these leaders began in 2001 when Jones, a graduate of Tuskegee University, commissioned from the U.S. Navy’s Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. Wijnaldum and Simpson would commission the same year but from the U.S. Naval Academy. O’Cañas would close out the group, commissioning in 2004 via the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at Boston University.
“I chose to begin my Naval service initially to obtain a college education,” said Simpson. “My mother was a single mother, and the Navy provided a path to education. Early in my career, I became impressed with the caliber and determination of our Navy Sailors. I had the distinct pleasure of serving with a leader that provided a tangible and positive example of work-life balance. He inspired me to stay Navy, and I’m so glad he did.”
SWOs are involved in nearly every aspect of U.S. Navy missions, providing guidance and direction while being held accountable and responsible for maintaining and operating their ships, their crews, and their systems.
The magnitude of that level of responsibility became clear to Jones after she received her initial Officer of the Deck Qualification.
“It was in that moment that I not only realized that an organization was entrusting me with the safe navigation of a national asset at the age of 24, but I also realized I had the opportunity to serve my country in a unique and meaningful way,” said Jones. “I still feel that way, and I cherish the privilege every day.”
All four are qualified Nuclear Surface Warfare Officers who have completed Naval Nuclear Power School and have spent a considerable amount of their time serving aboard nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and in nuclear-related shore duty billets.
Acceptance into the Nuclear Surface Warfare pipeline is extremely competitive, in part because of the academic rigor required of the program as well as the responsibility that comes with the job.
“I chose to stay Navy after an especially challenging time during my second division officer tour,” said Wijnaldum. At the time, she was separated and raising her young son while on shift work and preparing to take her Nuclear Engineering Officer (NEO) exam. Wijnaldum was also assigned to an aircraft carrier in the midst of its mid-life refueling and overhaul at the same time.
“My chief had been watching me, and he recognized that something wasn’t right,” said Wijnaldum. “He encouraged me to talk to my leadership, which gave me two days to get things in order in my home, and two additional weeks to study and prepare for my exam.”
Wijnaldum passed her written and oral exams the first time around.
“Not only did achievement of my NEO qualification improve my personal confidence, the support and engagement that I received from my chief and my chain of command made me want to stay on active duty,” said Wijnaldum. “Although I had been planning to get out of the Navy, I committed to staying in, accepting nuke shore duty orders so that I could one day ‘pay it forward.’ Despite the challenges of serving on active duty, in 2020 my husband and I celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary—for which I am so very thankful.”
The SWO-nuke community is small – all four commanders had crossed paths at various points during their careers. Wijnaldum and Simpson became friends during their first year at the Naval Academy, the former later becoming the godmother to Simpson’s two children. Wijnaldum and Jones attended Nuclear Power School and Prototype together. And Simpson met Jones while living in Washington, D.C.. Wijnaldum was the Main Propulsion Assistant aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) when O’Cañas reported aboard in 2013, and Wijnaldum was on board for only a short time before discovering that she was pregnant with twin boys.
“Being a SWO has been a great experience,” said O’Cañas, who, like Wijnaldum, also had thoughts of getting out of the Navy early on in her career. “On a personal front, I feel that the Navy has really progressed and made strides to embrace families and especially women who choose to have children and continue their naval careers.”
All four of the commanders have balanced their careers with family priorities and requirements, and at this point in time, they look across the waterfront to see more diversity present in the Navy.
“It’s a really great time to be a part of the community and watching how we have developed. I started out on an all-male ship (USS Bunker Hill, CG 52),” said O’Cañas, “And today I get to experience command with so many other amazing women and men. I am so proud to see all these wonderful leaders who are breaking down barriers. I know that my niece will be able to see women who look like her and be able to imagine all the things she may want to do with her life.”
In various ways, the four commanders have leaned on each other and other female peers throughout their careers.
“It has been a great resource to check-in, exchange ideas, and support each other,” said Jones. “You may hear from others that you can feel isolated in command. However, I’ve never felt that way, knowing this network exists on the Norfolk waterfront.”
These leaders have shared their stories so that future sailors can understand that it is possible to succeed at more than just one thing.
“I believe we continue to serve and remain transparent about our journeys because we understand that by communicating how we overcame personal challenges while balancing the demands of active duty service, women who come behind us are encouraged to do the same,” said Wijnaldum. “Unlike when we started our Navy journey, we are showing female officers and enlisted sailors that they can do it too.”