Three women sit in the Commanding Officer’s office for the Fleet Logistics Multi-Mission Squadron (VRM) 50 based on Naval Air Station North Island.
They are among the 47 women who serve in the 242-personnel squadron. That’s about 19% of the staff or just shy of the overall figure (20%) for women serving in the U.S. Navy, according to the Department of Defense.
The numbers clearly indicate they compose a minority in a military branch that has deep roots and ties to Coronado. Yet, these women – and others in VRM 50 – are in many ways trail blazers.
In wide-ranging interviews with The Coronado News, they said that despite the progress they have made of climbing through the ranks or just staying in the military has not been easy. But, they love serving their country, and they hope some of the personal challenges they have have faced will come to an end as other women look to serve in the Navy.
Operating the CMV-22B Osprey
Sitting in the middle is Commander Emily Stellpflug.
With her brown hair neatly pulled back in a bun, her sharp features come into view. She sits straight and tall in her chair, her hands folded neatly in her lap.
To her right is Concetta Denisi, a Naval Aircrewman, a reticent smile playing on her lips.
To her left is Katie Kidder, a Navy Pilot.
They all have on dark green jumpsuits, various patches strewn throughout the fabric.
These women work on an aircraft known as the CMV-22B Osprey.
A tiltrotor military aircraft, the Osprey has both vertical takeoff and landing and short takeoff and landing capabilities, meaning it is designed to combine the functionality of a conventional helicopter with the performance of a plane.
The Osprey was originally used and handled by the United States Marine Corps, and it wasn’t until 2020 that the United States Navy received their own modified variant of the Osprey that was specific to their mission requirements.
VRM 50 Squadron established
And it wasn’t until October of 2022 that the VRM 50 Squadron was established on North Island.
“[VRM 50] is kind of a schoolhouse where we give them about 70 hours in the Osprey to make sure that they’re safe, so when they go to VRM 30, they can do missions,” Stellpflug says.
Stellpflug graduated from the Naval Academy in 2005 before getting her wings in 2007.
Over 3,200 flight hours
Since then, she’s flown in combat missions out of Udairi, Kuwait and Iraq, among other assignments, accumulating over 3,200 flight hours.
Despite her accomplishments and almost two decades in the military, Stellpflug was no stranger to the experiences of being a woman in a male dominated field.
“The Naval Academy, at the time, I would say was not a very good environment for women, at least in my experience,” Stellpflug says, mentioning that joining the fleet after was actually a better environment.
Stellpflug, Denisi and Kidder all exchange knowing looks as they go around the table sharing their stories of experiencing stereotypes placed on them.
This is really the first time these women have been able to talk so truthfully to a news outlet about what it means to be a woman in the Navy, according to Public Affairs Officer Joash Ward who sat in on the interview, and the energy in the room was evident.
There’s something about being able to share experiences, knowing that those in the room will understand and not immediately move to judge or question.
Challenges on the ice
Kidder had a different experience at the Naval Academy when she attended in 2009, saying that she felt welcomed in her company despite women only taking up 21% of the entire class. However, she did eventually face her own struggles when she joined the women’s ice hockey team.
“At the time, they wouldn’t give us a locker room, they wouldn’t give us transportation to and from the rink. They supported us zero percent,” Kidder explains.
The Academy eventually gave them some form of a locker room, she said.
But, she said, it was under the bleachers, and there was no ceiling.
“So, if people are in the bleachers, they can totally look into our locker room,” Kidder says.
Despite the known hardships of being on a women’s sports team, Kidder didn’t feel those divides with her peers at the Academy.
“It was not without its challenges, but my classmates and my company were all really awesome and we’re all still friends today,” Kidder says.
Issues with flight instructor
When moving on to flight school, Kidder faced more issues with her flight instructor.
“I had male instructors that would refuse to go on cross-country flights with me because they didn’t want their wives to think anything,” says Kidder, who was then unable to go on those training flights and had to fly locally, but eventually had to search for a flight instructor who was willing to do those flights with her.
For Denisi, she was not even able to pursue what she originally planned to do, back in 2008.
“I would’ve joined the Air Force for parajumper, but it was males only at the time…You couldn’t join the Navy SEALS or SWCC,” Denisi says, adding she had to move on with her research when she realized she couldn’t pursue certain avenues within the military as a woman.
Mistaking her persistence
When she was finally able to find a route that she wanted to do, she was faced with comments that mistook her persistence as another character trait with a more negative connotation.
“There are times that I’ve pressed and I’ve pressed, and then I lose my cool and then I’m a bitch,” Denisi says.
She explains that she was a bit older when she started new missions and so didn’t put up with comments as much, but having the experience she’s had and women around was still important.
You don’t run into too many females.”Concetta Denisi, a Naval Aircrewman.
“You don’t run into too many females, so when you do it’s, like, ‘Hey, here’s support’ and everything else and hope they all turn out good,” says Denisi.
Kidder says that her factual assertiveness is often mistaken for emotional anger.
“It can be quite frustrating,” Kidder says. “So, I make it a point every time I am assertive…to be very objective and make as much of a push to remove any kind of emotion from the room.”
Changing for the better
Now, the women in the room feel that their environment has changed for the better.
I think that the Navy has come a long way…I think that women are starting to find communities that are inclusive.”-Commander Emily Stellpflug.
“I think that the Navy has come a long way…I think that women are starting to find communities that are inclusive. There are still some communities struggling with that, and you can see it in their retention.” Stellpflug says.
Kidder agrees, saying that it very much depends on where a woman will go within the military.
“Here, it’s great. We have great role models, great leadership that really set the standard for inclusiveness,” says Kidder.
Inclusiveness for LGBTQIA community
Inclusiveness is important for women in this male dominated field, and it also extends to the LGBTQIA community.
“I talk about language a fair amount, inclusive language. People will default to he/him pronouns when talking about something abstract,” Stellpflug says, reminding her personnel that ‘they’ works just as well.
“Same thing with being gay. I’m not shy about it, I’m not ashamed. But, you know, when someone is like, ‘Oh, what does your husband do?’ It’s just a constant ‘Oh, my wife is a nurse.’” says Stellpflug. “People have heteronormative ideas…It’s not the ‘Wives Club’ it’s the ‘Spouses Club.’”
However, Stellpflug feels that the Navy has been receptive and respectful towards her and the LGBTQIA community.
“When we trained on the [Osprey], VRM 50 didn’t exist. So, we went to train with the Marines…and it really took me back because I don’t hear that language in the Navy,” she says, stating some examples of the words she’d hear when working with the Marines.
Stellpflug says she doesn’t want to say the Navy is perfect, and there’s a long way to go, but they have come a long way.
But the Navy is big, and Stellpflug is doing what she can in her VRM 50 community as Commanding Officer to incorporate healthy change.
“That’s something that I work on in this environment. I very much believe that this is not my show…we need to work together,” says Stellpflug.
“We’ve been able to really set the standard for the culture of the community,” adds Kidder. “By the way we treat our students and the way we watch them treat others and interact both inside the aircraft and in the office, we’ve really been able to make an impression on what a healthy command looks like.”