A record-number of African-American women — 34 among 223 women in total — graduated on Saturday from West Point, the prestigious military academy in New York. In honor of Military Appreciation Month and in celebration of the most diverse West Point graduating class ever, MSNBC anchor Yasmin Vossoughian recently sat down with three incredible and accomplished women serving our country.
Marine Corps’ 1st Lt. Stephanie Salmon, Navy Lt. Laura Combs and Coast Guard Chief Boatswain’s Mate Holly Campbell—shared their stories with Vossoughian. They spoke about what inspires them, how they find the strength to move forward in a male-dominated industry and what the future looks like for other women who are interested in serving.
Lt. Salmon grew up in a military family and lived all over the world, including Okinawa, Japan. She went to West Point and cross-commissioned as a Marine. Now, she is an Osprey pilot at Marine Corps Air Station New River in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
“My passion to serve grew through childhood,” Lt. Salmon told Know Your Value, explaining that her dad was in the Marine Corps and her mom served eight years in the Navy. “I grew up in that lifestyle, I loved it, the people I met… incredible people.” Lt. Salmon’s dad was a pilot, and her desire to fly grew out of watching him come home on deployment. “I thought the lifestyle was so exciting, and I didn’t want to leave it,” she said. She attended West Point after graduating high school.
Lt. Combs, a naval flight officer, graduated from the United States Naval Academy in May 2008 with a bachelor of science degree in astrophysics. She earned her Naval Flight Officer wings in May 2010.
“My dad flew private planes, and that love for aviation steered me towards the Naval Academy and flying jets off carriers,” Lt. Combs said. “I grew to enjoy serving.”
For Chief Campbell, her desire to serve had been a calling of hers since she was very young. “My father was in the volunteer fire service in northern New Jersey. I became a volunteer myself,” she said. She went into boot camp right out of high school, which was greatly inspired by her dad, an Army vet.
When speaking about the growing diversity among the military in light of the West Point graduation, the women agreed that progress has been made.
“I think its huge, because you can only lead who you know,” Lt. Salmon said. “You need to have people who are from many different backgrounds, have many different perspectives, are all across the U.S. and from foreign countries, so that we could have that wealth of knowledge.” She said more diversity can change a person’s perspective, help them think outside the box and can have a positive influence on leadership skills.
Chief Campbell said that the military has been “bringing awareness to the forefront through recruiting and letting women and minorities know that we’re here for them and they are welcome into the services. There’s zero tolerance on discrimination or harassment or sexual assault. There’s no place for that in our core five branches of the military.”
The three agreed that more women who are serving now believe they can have both their careers and family.
“Women think they can’t have a career and a family, but that’s not the case,” Lt. Combs said. “Women are now able to continue in careers but still have that family that most women want to have. The military is creating opportunities.”
The women also spoke up about being the minority in their male-dominated fields—and how they overcome any challenges that might come from that. Vossoughian brought up a recent Navy report that revealed that sailors circulated sexually explicit lists that ranked female crew members.
Lt. Salmon, the only female officer in her squadron of 191 people, said it comes down to understanding that “you do have different perspectives.” She encourages women in a similar situation to “speak up” and to remain aware of how they act and represent themselves. She suggested “just being true to who you are and being okay with being the minority, but not making a big deal of it.”
Lt. Combs added: “If you treat people with respect, they’ll treat you with respect. I think it’s very important that you set the tone and have them follow it.”
She explained that she has been very lucky in the sense that any discrimination has been squashed very quickly for her. For others who might encounter discrimination, she suggested the dialogue: “You’ve crossed my line; you need to stop saying that.”
Overall, the sense of camaraderie and the honor of serving outweighs any challenges for all three women.
“My crew is outstanding and is constantly there,” Chief Campbell said. “They have my back, and I have theirs—and they know that.”
Lt. Combs admitted that she has those moments of doubt when she might ask herself, “what am I doing here?” or “do I really deserve to be here flying this jet?,” but soon those doubts fade and she is reminded, “No, this is right, this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Lt. Salmon agreed: “This is my purpose in life right now, and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability,” she said.