Honor, courage, commitment . . .meet Belle of Steel # 13 Shannon Wermers

Shannon Wermers navy widow

Navy widow and survivor Shannon Wermers

The naval officers’ mantra is honor, courage, commitment. As she stared at the flag draped coffin in which her dashing, young, and brilliant naval aviator husband now rested, Shannon Wermers bit back tears and tried to muster up the strength to get through the military funeral ceremony. It had all started out so brilliantly. Although her husband’s aviation career put his life in jeopardy on each and every flight, she never dreamed in a million years that in one brief moment; one freak accident; her husband would be taken from her forever.

On January 23, 2010, LT Clint Wermers, instructor pilot, and his student were out on an instrument training flight during their cross-country weekend. All had gone A-okay. They were shooting an approach to Lakefront Airport in New Orleans, LA when the foggy and wet weather rushed in, the altimeter dropped from 300 ft to zero, slamming the aircraft down into Lake Ponchartrain, a large body of water emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Climbing out of the cockpit, LT Wermers and his student had survived the landing. Now treading the cold waters with limited visibility due to the fog and dark evening hours, they fought for their lives. The student was the only to survive. When the knock on the door showed to be the command’s Commodore, Deputy Commodore, Commanding Officers wife, and the base chaplain, she began to shake. Surely what she feared wasn’t happening.

RIP Lt. Clint Wermers

RIP Lt. Clint Wermers

But it did happen. She was now standing aside his coffin. The bright smile and adoring eyes that twinkled every time he talked about flying were extinguished. At age 29, she was now a widow with two girls and a baby on the way. She could hear the maritime anthem of the Navy. Its familiar chords poignantly accompanying the tears that she could no longer hold back. She gripped her middle daughter’s hand and put her other arm around her oldest.How would she get through the next hour, the next day, the next week? She hadn’t a clue. As she held her daughters close, she clung to the one thing she had left – her faith. God was testing her. He needed to see her own honor, courage, commitment.When Shannon first started out as a military girlfriend, she dreamed and planned everything out in her mind. She and her handsome naval aviator would be “lifers” in their military career. Even though she knew life would take them in different directions, she never dreamed the road of widowhood would be one. Shannon believes as a society, people plan for marriage, children, and careers. Individuals rarely etch the what-ifs into their aspirations. As she puts it, “life wouldn’t be as fun if we viewed our goals and aspirations from the anxiety producing what-if perspective.”Once everyone went home post funeral, Shannon faced a period of self-doubt, abject loneliness, and depression. The huge psychological impact of her husband’s untimely death threatened to leave her in a dark place. But she refused to stay there for long, pushing through it for the sake of her girls. Her belief in God and her faith were a huge influence in helping pull her out of the quagmire. By studying the scriptures, she identified with the significant struggles that Jesus went through in his life. As bleak as her life without Clint seemed, she was determined to overcome it. She also got support from her husband’s operational and flight instructor commands. As a young navy wife, Shannon admired and looked up to the commanding officer and executive officer wives at TACAMO as a part of Strategic Communications Wing 1. TACAMO stands for “take charge and move out.” She looked up to these woman for their zeal of adventure, leadership and grace in any situation. She credits them for teaching her how to be the best version of herself and how to look out for others.  She needed to TACAMO.

Together for life until death they did part.

Together for life until death they did part.

In her darkest days, Shannon never lost sight of the fact that she was first and foremost a mother. Her small children needed her to be strong and help them feel safe; that despite the pain everything would be okay. Summoning up all her courage, she forged on. Hour by hour. Day by day. Each and every time a bad thought came in making her want to melt away into a stupor, she leaned on prayer and her faith. Knowing her God had complete control, she felt safe and at peace.

Shannon also credits the Navy for helping her overcome the financial impacts of losing her military spouse. An amazing group of aviators, many of whom are Vietnam vets heard about her story. They are known as Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, a reference to where they flew in Vietnam. Launching a program known as The Air Warrior Courage Foundation, they sought our Clint’s command and established 529 accounts (essentially trust funds) for all three of the girls to fund their future education. Shannon is eternally grateful to the many who donated whom she’s never met. So much so, that she now volunteers for the same organization, touring all over the country sharing her story of survival and encouraging other pilots and families to join.

Shannon believes the most rewarding experience of her young life has been to survive tragedy while playing the roles of both mother and father to her girls. They have now grown into well rounded, happy young ladies – warm, giving, and faithful to God, family and friends. Overcoming adversity with strength, dignity, and yes honor, courage and commitment has developed Shannon into a strong and independent woman; one who is compassionate to others suffering. She is a natural born leader who is cool under pressure. She takes on challenges and overcomes obstacles without blaming others, knowing that forgiveness is indeed divine.

The results of honor, courage, and commitment.

The results of honor, courage, and commitment.

Shannon has drafted a memoir of her journey. For her future plans, she has a second book in the works. She plans to spread her message across the nation by giving briefings and talks to both military and civilian groups about the importance of having your assets (wills, life insurance, etc) in place, so that in the event of a tragedy loved ones are not left with a web of legalities to untangle. For the purity of her honor, courage and commitment to make the world a better place by giving back, AgeView Press proudly honors Shannon Wermers as Belle of Steel number thirteen.

Belle of Steel #10 Captain Valerie Ormond, USN (Ret.)

What would it be like to be aboard a floating city of men? Essentially , a men’s only club, where the sign reads “No Girls Allowed.”  Retired Navy Captain Valerie Ormond knows. She was among the first female naval intelligence officers aboard a combat ship for the United States Navy. One of very few women aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.

All aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln

All aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln

An aircraft carrier’s crew consists of the ship’s company, those permanently assigned to the ship, and  the air wing personnel, who come on when the air wing is deployed. Normally, the air wing comes aboard for training, work ups, and deployments. The total ship’s company is normally around 3200.  The air wing totals about 2400. Therefore, the total personnel on board a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier is usually over 5500 people. In addition, there are others that are not part of the ship’s company.  These peeps consist of NCIS agents, contractors, teachers, the Admiral’s staff, and the like. Some interesting factoids on the USS Abraham Lincoln and photos can be found here.

The number of women assigned to the USS Abraham Lincoln’s ship’s company, air wing, and Admiral’s staff was 363 out of 5500.  She was one woman amidst a sea of men.

Valerie was assigned to Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron FIVE (VQ-5) as part of Carrier Air Wing ELEVEN (CVW-11) from November 1994 – July 1996. Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron FIVE flew the ES-3A Shadow, an aircraft carrier-based electronic reconnaissance aircraft. Carrier Air Wing ELEVEN  was assigned to the USS Abraham Lincoln in 1994 and 1995. Missions included a Western Pacific and Arabian Gulf deployment participating in Operation Southern Watch, the enforcement of the no-fly zone over southern Iraq, and Operation Vigilant Sentinel, in response to Iraqi threats against Jordan and Kuwait. VQ-5 is now decommissioned, but for some great data on VQ-5 and naval aviation click here .

As an intelligence officer, Valerie found that being on the squadron’s first six-month deployment on board a carrier with real world missions to be very fulfilling. There were some who said that as a woman, she had no place there.

But Valerie would hear nothing of it. To her, it mattered not whether she was male or female. She was there to use her mind over matters of war. With a dual Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Mass Communication from Towson University in Maryland, as well as a Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence from the Defense Intelligence College in Washington, D.C., she was a match for any man’s mind. She loved school and learning, and it showed. Valerie later attended the U.S. Army War College and was awarded her second Master’s degree in Strategic Studies. She believes that all of that schooling reinforced what her parents taught her early on: education teaches one how to think.

Valerie’s training has ranged from basic military survival skills to executive military leadership. But she doesn’t believe that any education or training is as important as experience. She feels she’s learned from every experience and as such, has tried to apply that learning to future steps in life.

Captain Valerie Ormond, USN (Ret.) at work as an author.

Captain Valerie Ormond, USN (Ret.) at work as an author.

As a retired, decorated, naval officer, Valerie never dreamed she would be where she is now; especially as an author. She didn’t plan either path from childhood, but fortunately followed where life led her. One of Valerie’s favorite quotes is from Alfred Lord Tennyson, “I am a part of all those I have met.”  She describes being lucky to have met extraordinary people and sharing the lessons learned from them with others.

The top two mentors who have inspired Valerie are retired Vice Admiral Jake Jacoby, U.S. Navy, and her dad.  But her mother comes in a very close third!  Admiral Jacoby believed in her, supported her, and never told her she couldn’t do something because she was a woman.  He advised her to take jobs which at the time she didn’t understand would be the best for her and her future in the navy.   Valerie now understands that being a mentor doesn’t mean always telling the person who seeks your guidance what THEY want to hear.   Sometimes a mentor must bear bad news and say, “No, I understand that’s what you’d like to do, but this is what you need to do.” She appreciates that Admiral Jacoby took her under his wing and never steered her wrong.

Although Valerie hadn’t planned on a naval career from childhood, her father indoctrinated her in the Navy from day one. Her father served as an active duty officer, a reservist, a naval civilian, and a navy contractor. Quite simply – he loved the navy.   A ship’s clock rang in their house 24/7. Her dad explained the meaning of the bells and their relation to watch shifts aboard ships. Her brother and she grew up with and learned expressions like “Rank Has Its Privileges,” “Change Step Move Out,” and   “Reveille, Reveille” in grade school. Her father taught her about navy traditions, leadership, and the pride and value of service. Interestingly, he was also a very gifted writer, which he never pursued beyond a hobby.

With such a strong, naval minded father, what about her mother? Valerie describes her as “brilliant, sassy, creative, supportive, and still working at the age of 78. Need I say more?”  Valerie thinks SHE is the real “Belle of Steel” here.

Concerning obstacles in her path to success in a male dominated world, Valerie remembers early in her navy career being teased by salty fleet sailors. They felt since she hadn’t served at sea, that somehow she was a less worthy member of the team. It made no difference to them that there were so few positions at sea for women officers at the time. And they were not being filled by English major Ensigns.  A memory struck her regarding the sign outside of a boy’s fort. “No Girls Allowed.”  As a young girl, she would have walked in and challenged the threat, but Valerie knew the United States Navy was far from a kid’s fort. Protocol and decorum were at play. She had to navigate the game.

Although she felt it was unfair to have something held against her, it was something over which she had no control. She volunteered for and served in assignments designated “sea duty equivalent” per the bureaucracy, but that didn’t seem to matter to naysayers. The impetus which compelled her to do her part occurred when the exclusion on women serving on combat ships and in aviation squadrons was lifted in 1993. She decided she could and would overcome the obstacle. Finally, she had the Navy’s permission to enter the fort.

When the first jobs opened up for female intelligence officers on combat ships, there were few positions for the many seeking them. Valerie was lined up for four separate jobs before she finally received orders as one of the first women aboard a combatant aircraft carrier as an intelligence officer in its air wing. Persistence, flexibility, and a willingness to do things never done before paid off in the end.

Valerie believes her most rewarding experiences in the military occurred when she could do something for someone else. In her current career as an author and national speaker, sharing her leadership experiences with others through media is the most rewarding experience. It struck her that she still had much to offer. Valerie believes that sometimes, “We don’t know what we know about ourselves until we share with others.”

As a naval officer, Valerie attributes one of her personal strengths to be the revelation that she can’t do everything herself. It was earth-shattering to realize that it’s okay to admit that. Valerie knows that tenant probably comes from having support from so many for so long. To this day, she is thankful to have the most amazing support a person could ask for from her husband, also a retired naval officer. She never takes that for granted. Valerie describes herself as someone not afraid of change. In fact, she’s become pretty good at not only accepting, but embracing, change. And finally, Valerie still believes that everything happens for a reason. Her mantra? Rather than dwell on the negative, try to move on to the positive.

Believing in Horses

Believing in Horses

Five years from now Valerie would like to still be helping other people – such as young women aspiring to leadership positions .  She trusts that helping someone else by sharing something she’s learned will achieve goals far beyond her own.   Her award winning book, Believing in Horses just won the Gold in young adult fiction for the Military Writer’s Society of America.    It is a story  of a young girl whose father is serving in Afghanistan.    It’s a coming of age story regarding overcoming the fear of losing her father in battle through horsemanship.   The powerful fiction is a beacon for children of deployed parents.    Again, Valerie giving hope.   For this reason, AgeView Press is proud to select retired Captain Valerie Ormond, U.S. Navy (Ret.) as Belle of Steel #10.

Follow Valerie Ormond and her career inspiring others.