WASHINGTON — The Navy reached a milestone this week when women swept the annual Sailor of the Year awards for the first time.
Their achievement was marked by meritorious promotions to chief petty officer in a ceremony at the Navy Memorial in Washington, with the womens' families and commanders proudly looking on as chief's anchors were penned to the lapels of their khakis Thursday.
The four sailors of the year were chosen from the enlisted fleet of 273,226. Every year they are honored in Washington.
This year, history was made — and their pride was palpable.
"It's almost like the sky's the limit," said Chief Hospital Corpsman Ingrid Cortez, 32, who just returned to Virginia Beach from a two-year deployment on the amphibious assault ship Bataan. "We no longer have obstacles for women."
The sailors were chosen for their overall performance and leadership, Navy officials said.
Since the first sailors of the year were honored in 1972, women occasionally have risen to the top of a pile culled from hundreds of nominations submitted by the fleet. But commanders described the ascension of Cortez; Chief Operations Specialist Samira McBride, 30; Chief Hospital Corpsman Shalanda Brewer, 29; and Chief Cryptologic Technician (Technical) Cassandra L. Foote, 27, as a product of women's integration in the fleet that deepened in 1993. That's when female sailors began serving on surface warships and combat aircraft.
"What we're seeing this year is the benefits of that change," said Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations. "For four women to rise to the top is extraordinarily unusual."
In June, Rear Adm. Nora Tyson became the first woman to command a carrier strike group, and Cmdr. Sara Joyner became the first to head a carrier air wing.
"That's the centerpiece of combat capability in the Navy," Roughead said.
Special forces remain the only role closed to Navy women.
Cortez, McBride, Brewer and Foote are rising in an active-duty and reserve fleet in which enlisted women make up 16.4 percent and officers 15.8 percent of the forces, according to Navy data.
Like all women who want to balance a career and children, these sailors face challenges, such as being stationed at sea. But two of this year's honorees have children, who pinned their mothers' anchors on Thursday.
Foote's 7-year-old son wants to be in the Navy. "If I can be a good role model, that will mean a lot," said Foote, who is stationed in Pensacola.