Steel Decks and Glass Ceilings – A Navy Officer’s memoir, by Jim Jewell

Why this book:  The author Jim Jewell is a good friend of mine, and he’s been sharing with me his process of writing and publishing this book. I was anxious to read it.

Summary in 3 Sentences: Jim Jewell was the Executive Officer (XO – 2nd in command) of the USS Yosemite in 1983-84 when it was selected to be the first Navy ship to make a long deployment with a mixed crew of men and women.  This is his story of being the XO during a deployment to the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea,  about the standard and routine challenges of being XO of a large deployed Navy ship, and some of the new challenges as well as advantages of having women as part of the officers and crew. Additionally, Jim was newly married at the time and he shares the  loneliness of being in a key position of responsibility for seven months, away from the support of loved ones, in the days when letter writing with long delays was the primary means of communicating between deployed ships and home.

My Impressions:  As a retired Navy Officer, I really enjoyed this retrospective look at life at sea on a Navy Ship from nearly 40 years ago.  But it was also the life of an XO – one of the most demanding jobs in the Navy, and in this case, in a particularly challenging environment.  Jim had previously had extensive as-sea experience and numerous deployments on combatant ships.  The Yosemite however was a very large destroyer tender, with a crew of nearly 1000, whose mission was to provide shipyard-like maintenance and repair services to deployed combatant ships, complete with sophisticated repair and engineering capabilities and expertise.  They also provided enhanced medical, dental and other administrative services that are not available on many smaller combatants. His narrative explains how being on a tender was an additional challenge for him, since he’d never served on a tender before, and tenders rarely deployed –  most of his crew were making their first long (7 month) deployment.

The book is full of stories and anecdotes from this deployment, and to provide context, Jim often goes back and shares stories from earlier deployments in his career on different ships.   But this was new – a different, larger ship, and now with the new challenge of having women on board.  He shares stories of what the XO had to deal with to prepare the crew of men and women for “liberty” in such ports as Mombasa, Kenya;  Diego Garcia;  Palma, Majorca;  Chismayo, Somalia; Rota, Spain. And he tells us some interesting and entertaining stories of what happened in these liberty ports.  He also shares interesting stories about the impact USO shows had, coming to entertain the troops.

It is also a book about leadership.  Jim describes how he had to balance his commitments to his ship’s mission, to the ship’s crew, to his Commanding Officer (CO,) and to his own personal values and well-being. Usually, these commitments were in alignment, but occasionally they weren’t and Jim had to weigh priorities, do some soul searching and decide.  All of these challenges were amplified by being isolated on a ship, with 24/7 responsibilities, only rare opportunities to get away and unwind, the loneliness at the top with few to share frustrations with, and navigating the uncharted waters of men and women isolated and working together on a US Navy ship for weeks and months at a time. 

  But for me, most interesting and enjoyable, were Jim’s very candid and personal perspectives on dealing with these daily XO challenges, anticipating and preventing problems and crises, and at the same time, taking care of his personal needs and dealing with his loneliness and separation from Maureen, his new bride.  In addition to his great memory, Jim saved and shares much from that deployment, including some of the Plans of the Day (PoD), some official guidance, and congratulatory messages to the ship.  Maureen, his confident, saved his letters, and Jim quotes liberally from them to provide insight into what he was really thinking and feeling, including a couple gems (p 164 and 189,) in which the normally positive and upbeat Jim spews forth to Maureen in colorful language, his anger and frustration at the nonsense he has to deal with as XO.  Jim Jewell himself is the star of this book, and his challenges, struggles, and successes as XO during a tough deployment is the real story.  And he brings the reader along for the ride.

Women in the Navy.  The “glass ceiling” aspect of the book is Jim and the ship dealing with the new challenge of having young men and women working and living alongside each other, isolated from other company, friends and family, for seven months on a US Navy ship.  This was an important sub-theme of the book, but was not THE theme of the book. It was simply one of the challenges, and a new one,  that he and the ship had to step up to meet.  The Navy’s strict “fraternization policy” prohibits intimate relations between men and women who serve together in the same unit, to prevent the fallout of personal romantic relationships impacting the work or the morale of the crew.  Jim knew romantic or intimate connections were impossible to prevent, and he strongly suspected that they were occurring, but his focus was on the readiness of the ship, and not letting such things impact the ship’s performance of its mission. 

So practically speaking, his focus was on preventing the negative impact that the appearance or knowledge that such pairings-up could have on readiness and the crew.  He gave strict guidance against “Public Displays of Affection” onboard, or on or near military activities ashore, such as MWR tours or fleet landings etc. guidance which he indicates was generally followed. Jim shares his discussions with his CO about their specific concerns, and what steps they took to anticipate and prevent problems. 

The CO’s policy was that as far as possible, men and women would be treated the same, that there would be no “female” sailors, no “male” sailors – just sailors, and Jim and the CO endeavored to reflect that policy in all their decisions.  According to his memoir, it seemed to work – no significant incidents, women integrated well, and in fact he’s convinced that the significantly increased numbers of Yosemite sailors who chose MWR tours over drinking and carousing, and the dramatically reduced number of liberty incidents ashore, were due to the male sailors choosing to go on liberty with their female colleagues, rather than getting soused together, and then seeking local female company in the seedier parts of the ports they visited.  

Jim notes several times how senior officers in the Navy were less than enthusiastic about the Navy’s Women at Sea initiative to integrate genders in ship’s crews.  In fact he sensed that many Navy leaders had hoped this experiment would fail, to give them ammunition to curtail this unwanted, and forced experiment.  The CO and XO were convinced that the record proved that this first long deployment with women as part of the crew went very well, and that the experiment was an unqualified success.  My impression, and I believe most readers will agree, that the CO’s and Jim’s leadership were key to that success. To the Navy’s credit, the Yosemite was rewarded and publicly recognized for their outstanding performance while undertaking this experiment, and achieving a highly successful deployment under arduous conditions with a new, mixed gender crew.

At the conclusion of the book Jim states (and explains) “The female officers and enlisted aboard Yosemite not only did their part to meet the ship’s mission, but in many ways improved our performance, because they were women.”  (“Because they were women…” I assume is because women joining the men on liberty seemed to moderate the behavior of young men, and significantly reduced  liberty incidents.)

Quibbles: As XO, Jim’s primary interactions with ship’s women were with the six female officers, and he shared how impressed he was with their performance. Several of the female officers appear regularly in his narrative, and in some cases, their voices are heard.   The book would have been better had we learned more about the experience of the 90+ enlisted women, and to have heard their voices in this narrative.   We don’t learn what Yosemite’s women thought – were they as enthusiastic about the success of the experiment and the deployment as the CO and XO?  What might have been their recommendations? 

Also, I suspect Jim knew about incidents during the deployment that may have run counter to the “everything worked great” narrative.  I’d like to have heard about those.  I wonder if there were any marriages later between Yosemite crew members (not necessarily a bad thing, but…) or divorces that may have resulted from deployment romances.  None are mentioned.  I’m always a bit skeptical of “everything was great” narratives.

One other shortcoming: There are numerous editing errors – typos, misspellings, grammatical issues -that should have been caught before publishing. Jim is aware, and a bit embarrassed.  Not sure how he’s going to take that up with his publisher.  

Those quibbles aside, this is a fascinating look at the Navy of forty years ago, and how this particular deployment was a key first step in the successful integrating of Navy ships’ crews with women.  The Navy has come a long way in 40 years, but my Navy women friends assure me that there are still challenges, and I suspect probably always will be.  I thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity to share this key phase of Jim’s life and career, his leadership lessons, and the key role he played in this important period in the evolution of our Navy. 

I’d strongly recommend Steel Decks and Glass Ceilings as reading for Surface Warfare Officers getting ready for deployment, or for any XO of a deploying unit in any branch or service, or anyone interested in understanding what it’s like being deployed on a Navy ship for seven months.  I believe it also is an important addition to the literature on integrating the genders on military deployments.  


About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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