closeup of a young woman posing for a group photo during Navy bootcamp

This Navy Veteran Drove a Billion Dollar War Ship When She Was 18

If you met Navy Veteran Emily Fowler, you would find a woman with a warm, easy-going personality mixed with a generous dose of humor. But the Veteran part often comes as a surprise to people when they learn that she was a Sailor. “People are blown away when I tell them. Especially at work. Like, ‘You were in the Navy?’ Yeah, I was on a whole ship and everything.”

WHY SHE JOINED THE NAVY

“Um, because my recruiter was fine as hell,” she says with a hearty laugh. He set up shop outside her cafeteria a few months before she graduated high school and offered her some information. Without skipping a beat, she told him, “Well if they all look like you, then I am in!”

But below the surface she is more serious about it, talking about her military service with unassuming candor.  

“I just knew that I wasn’t college material right out of school. I liked school, but it wasn’t for me. And I didn’t want to waste my parent’s money.” Instead, she followed in the footsteps of her Dad, Uncle and Grandpa, who were all in the Navy. “My Dad is a 20-year retiree. He’s a GSM (Gas Turbine Systems Mechanic). And he really talked it up.”

RECRUITERS SELLING ROSY SEA TALES

While Fowler knew she wanted to be in the Navy, she had no idea what she wanted to do. At the recruiting office she asked questions and tried to make the most informed decision she could, but felt they weren’t very forthcoming. Instead, they painted her a rosy picture of joining as an Undesignated Seaman. She was told she could work in different fields, then cross over to a designated job rating. She thought, “Yes! Why wouldn’t everybody do that?”

While technically true, it was severely misrepresented. “He made it seem like once you got to your first station, you could automatically start working with whichever division you were interested in and you’d be good. And that was not the case at all. You went to deck. And that was it, you were done.”

GETTING HER SEA LEGS

After boot camp, Fowler completed a three-week training in deck seamanship before being transferred to the fleet. Once assigned to a ship, the duties of an Undesignated Seaman are broad and the work is hard. It means long hours spent cleaning and maintaining the skin of the ship; ensuring smooth transitions in and out of port; assisting with underway replenishment, helo operations and emergency search and rescue; and standing a variety of vital watches in port and at sea, to include standing lookout and steering the ship.

Fowler did all of this and more onboard the USS Gettysburg, and working hours were especially long and hard at sea. A typical day for her on deployment involved a rotating series of watches on top of regular work duties. “We were always on watch. Every five hours we would switch out. Helm, port side, starboard side, or we would be on the fantail. After watch, we would eat and literally go straight to work. Until it was done. There was no, ‘It’s 1600, let’s go.’ No. You had to work. And in between the work you had to go stand another watch.” Balancing work, watch and other required duties often meant she averaged three to four hours of sleep before getting up to do it all over again.

Even port visits were busy. She has a vivid memory of painting the anchor while the ship was pulling into Italy. “They were backing us up to the pier—we were dangling over the side and it’s freezing cold. The captain freaked out because we had rust on our anchor, and we couldn’t go into Italy with rust. Literally made us paint it!”  

USS Gettysburg Sea and Anchor Detail. Scotland.
Fowler, facing the camera, assists with sea and anchor detail while a bagpiper plays on the pier. Scotland, 2003.
DRIVING THE SHIP

Only so many people can claim they have driven a 9,800-ton ship, especially at the young age of 18. “At first it was really cool. When you first get to the ship, you’re like, oh my God! I get to drive this big-ass ship!” But the glamour wore off quickly underway. Later, after an intense, eight-month training, she became a master helmsman—one of only three on board. Under orders from the conning officer, she was responsible for steering the ship at sea (including underway replenishment) and maneuvering in and out of port.

BECOMING A BOATSWAIN’S MATE

“To say I loved the job, I mean at first, no. It was hell. I hated the watches and [I was] painting all the time.” But the repetitive nature of the work made her good at it, and since she understood seamanship and ship maintenance so well, she chose Boatswain’s Mate as her job rating.

Her duties at sea also meant a lot of time spent with the captain. “I got so much one on one time because he would be up on the bridge all the time. And he was the CO that stayed on the bridge. He was not a CO that did not show his face. While I was standing portside watch he would smoke a cigar and we would talk about life. Of all my COs he was by far the greatest. When we talk about Gettysburg, people still talk about Captain Hebner.”

BREAKING UP THE MONOTONY AT SEA

No matter a Sailor’s job, life at sea is not for the faint of heart. But there are small things peppered throughout a ship’s routine that help break up the monotony of the repetitive schedule and long working hours of being underway. Fowler remembers times where the captain would order a sudden breakaway after underway replenishment, tilting the ship hard to port or starboard. Or the movies that always played at night in berthing.

At sea, she often played “The Song of the Day” in the mornings for the crew. “Somebody would be recognized for the day, reveille played, and then you’d get to pick any song you wanted. They had this CD player up there! We held the 1MC up to the CD player and the whole ship would hear it. Stuff like that… God, it was so much fun.”

SEEING THE WORLD

While assigned to the Gettysburg, she visited places like Scotland, England, the United Arab Emirates, and even the Seychelles, a desolate island nation nearly 1,000 miles from the coast of Africa. She still has her deployment jacket, a black bomber documenting her Gulf Deployment during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. “It’s very masculine—it sits in my closet, but I love that jacket.”

HINDSIGHT

At the time, Fowler didn’t always appreciate the simplicity of her work on the ship the way she does now. Today she can laugh about the tougher times, and there are many aspects of sea duty she remembers fondly.

“The camaraderie stayed with me. I miss the camaraderie. I miss it really bad. When I see a ship get underway or get back from deployment, I’m like, damn. I should have stayed. I should have just stuck it out. The Navy—or even the military, for that matter—I can’t speak for every branch but for me, it just gets inside of you and never leaves you.”

“It was the best five years ever. Like EVER for me. From start to finish. During it, I was like, I hate this, I just want to go home. But now looking back, I would do it all over again. I would literally go sign right now if I could. I loved it that much. All the places we got to see, the things we got to do and experience… it was awesome.”

A CHANGE OF PACE

After the Gettysburg, Fowler transferred to COMDESRON 14. She went from sweating outside all day to wearing makeup in an office setting. “It was like your typical office job. So I got a taste of both worlds in the Navy. It was definitely a change of pace.” COMDESRON 14 was a Navy HR of sorts for a half-dozen ships homeported at Naval Station Mayport, Florida. She confirmed Sailor’s orders, typed up individual medal citations, and did other administrative tasks for the ships under their command. 

And it was there that Fowler had the good fortune to work under an excellent Chief. “Chief Evancheck—she was my mentor. It was like we were born 20 years apart but together because we were so much alike. She was amazing!”

It was a stark contrast from her previous Chiefs, and it made her appreciate her experience in the Navy more. Fowler admired her resilience, and learned the kind of lessons from her chief that were hard to put into words but impossible for her to forget. “To be honest, if I could find her today, I don’t know what I would do. She was like my Mom.” 

POST-NAVY LIFE

After five years in the Navy, Fowler hung up her uniforms and transitioned back into the civilian world. She is married with three boys, and works as a stability analyst for a pharmaceutical company that makes respiratory medications.

FROM SAILOR TO VETERAN

There are currently a surprising number of women who don’t see themselves as Veterans, despite the fact that women have had permanent status in the military for 70+ years now. But Fowler embraces that part of her identity. “I definitely see myself as a Veteran. Only because of the love that I have for my country. And the efforts that I put into keeping the Gettysburg running, and serving with other shipmates. Absolutely, 100%.”

To join the Army and fire a gun would have been surprising enough, but when people learn that Fowler is a Navy Veteran and once drove a ship, eyes grow big and mouths hang open. “I can’t see you doing that!” is a common response. She is proud but casual about her service and responds with a smile and a shrug. It was just what she did, and she doesn’t regret it for a moment.

“I love telling people that I’m a Veteran. Because, look at me. I just look like a normal, average American female. People look at us and they’re like, you’re not a Veteran. But I am. And to me, it’s pretty bad-ass that we have that status.”

NO REGRET

Working in the civilian world, she notices a recurring theme of regret from women who wanted to join the military but didn’t. When she asks what stopped them, the answer is usually fear. “I’m like, really? That’s not enough to hold me back. Even if you don’t make it a career—if you just do four or five years—just having that on you, carrying it with you—it’s something that no one can ever take away.”  

WILL THE LEGACY CONTINUE?

When it comes to the family legacy of service, Fowler’s oldest son Garrett already has big goals in life. If accepted to the Naval Academy, he would become fourth generation Navy on his mother’s side. After the Navy, his sights are set on NASA and the astronaut program. “He is obsessed with NASA. And he’s not somebody that I see not fulfilling what he said he’s gonna do.”

And she supports those aspirations. “If they want to join? Absolutely, I will back you up 100%. I’m from a really small town, so if you don’t really do anything with yourself, you’re stuck here. Don’t get me wrong, if you want to stay here, great. But I want you to be successful while you stay here. So if you’re not gonna go to school, then I feel like the military is the only option. Or get a good trade. Because you can get out of the Navy and have so many skills and get a good job.”

THE WHIM THAT CHANGED HER LIFE

Back in her senior year of high school, things could have turned out very different for Emily Fowler. If she didn’t have such a strong family legacy of Navy service or never crossed paths with that recruiter, who knows what might have happened? “It was literally on a whim I decided to go. I didn’t even think about it. I signed my papers and my Mom bawled.” Despite that, her Mom Lynn is incredibly proud. “She wanted me to go. She knew it was the best thing.” By signing those papers, she also became the first woman in her family to join the military.

When Fowler talks about the Navy, she can be so casual about it. But in the same breath, serving her country was the best decision she ever made. And she wants others to see that women are just as capable and determined as the men with whom they serve.

“I’m not just a statistic female in the Navy. I did as much as my shipmates—all of my shipmates—if not more. I went in there and busted my ass and I showed pride every day for those that I was fighting for freedom for. It wasn’t a joke to me. It wasn’t just a job or a paycheck for me. It was something that I loved doing. I went in with my whole heart and I would do it again.”

“No matter what branch you decide to join, the selflessness that comes from any human being that is willing to sign the dotted line—it shows your true character.”

AN EXPERIENCE YOU’LL NEVER FORGET

Today, she looks back on her time in the Navy with a clearer perspective and deeper appreciation for the little things that inspire awe long after the moment is gone. The intense colors of the sun setting on the Mediterranean. Or a sky so pitch-black it could only be found in the middle of a vast ocean. “It wasn’t hard, to be honest. It was really an experience. It just sticks with you forever, and you’ll never, ever forget it.”

Emily Fowler served five years in the US Navy, separating honorably as a Boatswain’s Mate Third Class in 2007.

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