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Passion. Purpose. Pay it forward.

By Communication and Outreach Division, Naval History and Heritage Command

“Passion. Purpose. Pay it forward.”

When reflecting on her notable 36-year career, these are the fundamentals Vice Admiral U.S. Navy (retired) Carol Pottenger highlights as the keys to success. She explains, “As long as you have passion about what you’re doing, you believe you’re bringing value to an organization, your purpose is strong and sincere, and you mentor others every step of the way – then you are in the right job, at the right time for the right reasons.”

One of six children and the daughter of a U.S. Army Veteran, Pottenger says that while she always felt a deep sense of patriotism and desire to serve her country, she hadn’t considered joining the military until she met her third cousin, who served in the Submarine Force.

During the 1970’s, when she went through her senior year of high school, none of the military academies had begun admitting women and only a handful of universities offered the NROTC program to women. One of those universities was Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana. It wasn’t until her second year at Purdue that she got a NROTC scholarship, and when two years later the Naval Academy started accepting women, they visited and asked if she, and the other few women in the ROTC program, wanted to apply. Pottenger says she was interested – until she was told she would have to start over as a fourth-class midshipman. Her support of Purdue University and their NROTC unit remains strong to this day.

PACIFIC OCEAN (March 15, 2007) – Rear Adm. Carol M. Pottenger speaks to Sailors and Marines aboard dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49) during an all hands call. Pottenger explained the importance of Harpers Ferry’s role in establishing strong bilateral relations in the region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Mark R. Alvarez)

In 1978, she became one of the very first women chosen to serve aboard a ship. She credits the warrants and chiefs onboard USS Yosemite (AD 19) during her first tour as the Boilers and Machines Division Officer with teaching her about leadership, tenacity, and respect. “Even though there were only four women officers aboard a ship with a crew of over 1,000; for the most part we were accepted and offered the same opportunity as our male peer division officers to work hard, get our qualifications done and grow in our profession,” she said.

Pottenger’s career had only just begun.

A woman of firsts, she went on to serve additional tours commanding two ships, an entire fleet of Military Sealift Command ships, an expeditionary strike group of eight ships, and the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC), which is comprised of 40,000 Sailors and civilians.

Established in 2006, NECC celebrated its 15th anniversary on January 15, 2021. Responsible for organizing, manning, training, equipping and sustaining the Navy Expeditionary Combat Force (NECF), NECC accomplishes their mission by executing combat, combat support, and combat service support missions across the full spectrum of naval, joint, and combined operations, which enable access from the sea and from of action throughout the sea-to-shore and inland operating environments.

Leading a command of this depth might seem daunting to some, but not Pottenger. NECC was merely two years old and still within its early stages when she took command in 2008, becoming the third commander of NECC – and the first female to hold command of a “type command.”

Her final tour as a Vice Admiral was with NATO at Allied Command Transformation, where she had seven European Flag and General officers working for her.

Throughout her impressive career, she never lost track of who she was at the core – a United States Navy Sailor. Looking back on her time in the Navy, Pottenger recalls, “One of the phrases I used in my tour as the Commander of Task Force 76 in Japan, where I dealt every day with male Flag Officer counterparts from our Allies and Partners, was: I am a United States Navy Flag Officer…who happens to be female!”

As she advanced through the ranks, she emphasized the importance of mentoring those junior to her.

“As a young officer, I felt it was my responsibility to mentor and support all of my Sailors – not just the women. As I grew more senior, I came to better understand that it does matter to be able to look up the chain of command and see women, see people who “look like you” – but I will also say that the critical premise for promotion and selection for greater responsibility must be focused on talent and potential, not race or gender.”

Her advice to young women currently serving?

“Take advantage of every opportunity to learn and push yourself, don’t be afraid of failure, rather step through that door and give it your best. Persistence and a good attitude will take you a long way. Find someone you admire and ask them to mentor you or to offer their advice.”

Sasebo, Japan (April 17, 2007) – Information System Technician 3rd Class Anthony Seay demonstrates the proper way to hit a speed bag during a visit to the ship by Commander, Amphibious Force, U.S. 7th Fleet, Rear Adm. Carol M Pottenger. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Brandon Myrick)

Pottenger notes that it was through always believing in her team as well as being supported by her bosses, that she rose to the rank of Vice Admiral. She credits her spouse for being flexible and understanding that the “Mission comes first” and praises her mentors for “walking the walk” and showing her how to mentor those junior to her in turn.

“I have been so shaped by my military service, so steeped in this ethos of making a difference, it has indeed made me a much better person in every facet imaginable,” Pottenger says, “I always tell people that I got more than I gave – I got much more reward, more satisfaction, more self-worth from serving than I ever had to give in terms of sacrifice or time or effort.”

Thank you for your service, Vice Adm. (ret.) Pottenger!