This Veterans Day we are celebrating the unique experiences that veterans face both during their military service and after their military service. Read more of our Veterans Day pieces here.
When Nilsa Swift joined the Navy in 1985, she logged one pretty amusing anecdote.
“I’m a short person, and it was a struggle for me to even reach the blades of the aircraft to do maintenance,” she joked by email.
But scaling those early heights served better as a metaphor for meeting the challenges of succeeding as an American servicewoman.
“I always wanted to portray myself and behave in a way where I would be respected as a woman. But also not be excused, because I was a woman,” she said.
Similarly, Swift doesn’t run from her Puerto Rican upbringing. “We had an outhouse, and we washed our clothes in the river,” she said.
The tide turned significantly by elementary school when the family moved to New York City. Still, her single mother’s finances meant the want-ads were the closest she would come to a college curriculum. A Navy listing stuck out, though, and after excelling on the ASVAB, Swift took the oath.
The family was shocked. Her father was especially appalled because he deemed the military a male domain. He wasn’t alone, and coming aboard, her aviation maintenance squadron really tightened the screws.
“It was difficult to have so many males speak to me in a manner where I didn’t feel like I was wanted,” she said.
Unfortunately, actions couldn’t speak loudly because women often drew menial work. Swift kept her head up anyway and always went above and beyond.
“Even if it was scrubbing the toilets, I made sure it would be pristine,” she said.
Thus excellence always overshadowed other considerations.
“I was proud that I was a woman, and I was proud that I was Hispanic. But I wanted to be viewed as a sailor.”
Nonetheless, Swift settled in.
“I got into the battle rhythm and started finding help along the way, ” she said.
Things got easier and postings in Guam, Hawaii and the Philippines sweetened the deal. However, everyone at home was stuck in the past and didn’t want her to continue her military service. But Swift was committed and re-upping was a no-brainer, so every few years Swift followed suit.
Along the way, her commanding officer suggested taking a yeoman test and a career track emerged.
“As a chief petty officer (CPO), you enter the upper management,” she said. “And they run the Navy.”
USS Carl Vinson, USS John C. Stennis, USS Ronald Reagan and USS Blue Ridge all became home. But knowing the drill, Swift didn’t simply provide a cushion for other women.
“We had to do more to always be on an even keel with the men. So when becoming a leader, I demanded more of female sailors,” she said. “Just as I had demanded more of myself.”
However, her career also had a soft side. One of her sailors couldn’t balance Navy life and single motherhood anymore, so Swift intervened. Swift negotiated a post that allowed the mom to continue to serve and to care for her daughter. Today, she is a senior CPO, Swift said.
Inevitably, family constraints befell Swift. She and her Navy husband started a family in 1994, and over the years she found herself missing numerous family events. The hardship still conjures guilt, but she counts herself lucky for a husband who retired to raise the kids. “My husband was the glue,” Swift said.
And her children remained resilient. They loved traveling, and she’s not surprised that her two oldest joined the Navy.
“I can’t express how proud I am,” she beamed.
Thirty years accumulated and retirement meant the master chief petty officer could steer her own future. The financial industry appealed to her because of the service aspect. Enabling clients, the real investments were in themselves, and her first boss at USAA provided the perfect lead. She didn’t hesitate to jump ship either when he embarked for Charles Schwab.
“He is the type of leader I respect, admire and want to work for,” she said.
And again, her leadership example as Senior Team Manager for Digital Product Management shows the way in Austin, Texas.
“Whatever goals we want to achieve collectively, we commit to individually – just like in the Navy,” she concluded. “Nothing can be achieved alone.”Read comments