Over the past 18 months, the Naval History and Heritage Command has highlighted female Navy trailblazers. We’ve shared their stories because women are integral members of the Navy family and serve as valuable role models for the next generation of Navy civilians and Sailors. NHHC is committed to ensuring their stories are remembered and preserved.
Command Master Chief Octavia Harris was one of the first enlisted women to serve on a combatant ship. She served for 30 years, mentoring hundreds of Sailors, and today uses her military training to help sexual assault survivors.
Harris grew up in Queens, New York. Her family moved to Montgomery, Alabama, when she was a teenager. Her mother signed paperwork supporting her daughter’s decision to join the military, and Harris joined the Navy during her junior year in high school.
Two months after her high school graduation, Harris started her training in Orlando, Florida. The Navy was in a period of transition. Women had only been allowed to serve at sea for four years when Harris joined the service, and female enlisted Sailors were still training separately from their male counterparts. According to Harris, integrated training was instituted to make it easier for women to serve with their male counterparts in the fleet.
Her first assignment was in Milton, Florida, and she faced racism from locals who supported segregation. Harris stood her ground and demanded respect when disrespected and equality when treated unfairly.
In 1994, the combat prohibition ban was lifted, and Harris became one of the first Sailors aboard a combatant warship. She served on USS Nimitz (CVN-68). The Navy placed female officers aboard the combatants before enlisted female Sailors arrived, and Harris shared that the female officers looked tired and tough, but undefeated when she came aboard. Collectively, they’d all advocated to be the first women aboard the ships, and they were determined to succeed.
Harris mentored hundreds of Sailors during her 30-year career. When she was stationed at CID (formerly NTTC) Corry Station in Pensacola as an "A" school company commander, she created an administrative pool that supported all the schoolhouses, which made processes more efficient and personnel more successful. Morale was high, and she was asked if she wanted another challenge. Harris stepped up to mentor and lead the former Opticalman and Instrumentman (OM/IM) rating "A" school students as their company commander. She taught Sailors to become their best selves.
Another mentoring lesson was borrowed from her mother. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once said that no one can make you feel inferior without your permission. Harris’ mom shared that wisdom with Harris, and Harris shared it with her Sailors.
Early in her career, one of Harris’ bosses nominated her to be Sailor of the Quarter. She’d done outstanding work as a junior yeoman, and he wanted her work to be recognized. This award gave Harris more confidence in her own skill sets and taught her the importance of formal recognition, a lesson learned she shared with junior Sailors.
Harris’ career included a tour as a detailer. She worked with her Sailors to assign them to billets that met the needs of the Navy and the wants of the service members. Harris often received calls from the Sailors thanking her for the jobs, expressions of gratitude she greatly appreciated. She then shared lessons learned from this experience with the detailers who followed her.
During her Navy career, Harris completed seven Middle Eastern deployments. Her command master chief (CMDCM) sea tour was aboard USS Pinckney (DDG-91). Her last tour was as CMDCM of Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, leading 10,000 men and women in support of the command’s vision and mission.
After leaving the Navy in 2012, Harris was appointed a member of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Advisory Committee on Women Veteran and, subsequently, as chair of the committee for the last two years of her six-year appointment. She was also appointed a member of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service, where she served as sub-committee chair for employment and integration. Additionally, Harris is the Texas Ambassador for the Military Women’s Memorial.
Today, Harris is working with sexual assault victims/survivors. As a Navy CMDCM, she’d learned that a good leader looks out for their Sailors. In her role on the Veteran Affairs Advisory Committee, she’s helping stop sexual assault and sexual harassment (SASH). She’s teaching SASH survivors about the tools they have in their wheel box.
As a junior Sailor, Harris met then Ensign Paula Coughlin. They were both stationed together at Whiting Field in 1982. Coughlin had served in an administrative job when she applied for aviation training and was accepted. It was rare to see female naval aviators at that time, and Harris was proud of Coughlin’s selection. In 1991, Coughlin reported sexual harassment and sexual assault at the Tailhook Association conference in Las Vegas. Harris said she is proud of Coughlin’s courageous stand for all women, and she’ll always remember her.
Harris shared many lessons learned while on active duty, but there was one thing she couldn’t share with her Sailors: the fact that she’s a lesbian. Gays and lesbians couldn’t serve in the military during her years of service, and this prohibition made Harris feel that she had to fake her true identity. No one serving their country should have to hide who they are and who they love.
Thank you, CMDCM Harris, for your leadership and service to your fellow veterans and the Navy.