When she was studying Shakespeare and Milton at Vanderbilt in the late 1970s, Nora Wingfield Tyson never dreamed she’d be making history one day. But last July in a cavernous aircraft-carrier hangar in Norfolk, Va., Rear Adm. Tyson did just that when she became the first woman in U.S. Navy history to be named commander of a carrier strike group.
As such, she’s responsible for the lives of more than 9,000 sailors and airmen, not to mention billions of dollars’ worth of ships and aircraft poised to strike quickly at America’s enemies anywhere in the world. It’s a heavy load for anyone—man or woman—to bear.
“The work is never easy, but it is in my mind the most noble and rewarding work there is—serving our country,” she says.
As commander of Carrier Strike Group 2, Tyson, BA’79, leads a group of about 80 combat aircraft and 13 ships that include her flagship, the USS George H.W. Bush, the nation’s newest nuclear super carrier.
Tyson’s record is impressive. As captain of the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan, she led the Navy’s rescue and relief efforts when Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans in 2005. Flying virtually around the clock, the ship’s helicopter pilots were among the first to pluck desperate New Orleans residents from their rooftops, rescuing more than 1,600 displaced persons. The Bataan also delivered more than 100,000 pounds of supplies, 8,000 gallons of fresh water, and two teams of 84 medical professionals to the stricken city.
Under Tyson’s command, the Bataan also deployed twice to the Persian Gulf during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Its mission was to deliver marines to the war zone via helicopters, landing craft and amphibious vehicles. Tyson says it was a wrenching experience.
“We took a full ship of sailors, marines and equipment to Kuwait and put the marines on the beach,” she recalls. “We didn’t know what they were going to face [in Iraq] or if they were going to come back. It was tough; they’re our brothers. But that’s what we do and what our fellow citizens expect of us.”
Rear Adm. Tyson’s command, Carrier Strike Group 2, is one of 11 strike groups currently maintained by the Navy that serves a variety of purposes, all of which involve gaining and maintaining sea control. The carrier strike group plays a critical role in the nation’s war-fighting arsenal.
A distinguished line of commanders has led Carrier Strike Group 2 since its origin in 1937. They include the renowned Adm. W.F. “Bull” Halsey during World War II, as well as Vanderbilt alumni Jerry C. Breast, BA’58, and Riley Mixson, BA’58, both retired rear admirals.
Tyson’s flagship, the Bush, is the center of Carrier Strike Group 2, which also includes four guided-missile cruisers, six guided-missile destroyers, two frigates, and eight squadrons of aircraft. One of the group’s destroyers, the USS Cole, was attacked by terrorists in Yemen in 2000.
Towering 20 stories above the waterline, the Bush is almost as long as the Empire State Building is tall. It carries about 75 fixed-wing aircraft and up to 15 helicopters. It can launch aircraft at a rate of one every 20 seconds. Its three 2-inch-diameter arresting wires on deck can bring an airplane going 150 miles per hour to a stop in less than 400 feet.
Sitting at her desk in the command and control center deep inside the carrier, Tyson sips coffee from a cup emblazoned with the word “Nashville.”
“The greatest challenge of my job,” she says, “is making decisions that affect other people’s lives. The most rewarding part is bringing your crew, your sailors and marines safely back home to their families after months away at sea serving their country.”
In her role as “war planner,” she meets daily with the carrier’s captain and the head of the air wing. When under way, she communicates with other warships in the strike group through a secure telephone or by teleconference.
The Bush, commissioned in 2009, is the last of the Nimitz class of carriers. Estimated to have cost $6.2 billion, it is longer than three football fields and displaces more than 100,000 tons, making it one of the world’s largest warships. Powered by two nuclear reactors, it is capable of staying at sea for 20 years before refueling, although it typically stores food and supplies for only 90 days.
The carrier is named in honor of the nation’s 41st president who, in 1943 at age 18, became the youngest naval aviator ever to receive his wings. The former president placed a congratulatory telephone call to Tyson following her change-of-command ceremony and has communicated with her frequently since then.
When the Bush is deployed to sea in the spring of 2011, only six or seven ships will accompany the carrier. They could be assigned to any number of hot spots, including the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, or even the Pacific Ocean. The rest of the strike group will be distributed throughout the world wherever they are needed. In addition to military operations, the ships of the strike group also could be called upon for humanitarian duties, as they were in Haiti after the recent earthquake, or for counter-drug operations in the Caribbean.
Wherever they are deployed, those under Tyson’s command should be in good hands. By all accounts, a sincere interest in the welfare of others serves her well, whether leading her troops or engaging in international diplomacy. Her colleagues, both superiors and subordinates, describe her as intelligent, pragmatic and charming.
Before taking charge of Carrier Strike Group 2, Tyson commanded Task Force 73 and the Logistics Group, Western Pacific, based in Singapore. That job involved logistics and operations coordination in a key strategic area encompassing 51 million square miles of ocean. While in Southeast Asia, Lt. Cmdr. Mike Morley witnessed an incident in which Tyson’s diplomatic skills favorably impressed U.S. allies in the region.
“In April 2010, Rear Adm. Tyson led a nine-person delegation to Cambodia to plan the first large-scale training between the U.S. Navy and the Royal Cambodian Navy,” Morley recalls.
“The Cambodian Navy, being very big on formalities, literally rolled out the red carpet at each stop on her itinerary, with dozens of sailors lined up to render military honors. One meeting ran very long, and we were nearly two hours late. About 70 Cambodian sailors stood in the searing tropical sun, rifles at port arms, dripping with sweat. Adm. Tyson and the Cambodian delegation exited their cars and were ushered past the formation into an air-conditioned conference room.
“Rear Adm. Tyson quickly excused herself, walked the 30 yards back to the end of the line, and made her way up the formation, shaking each sailor’s hand and thanking them personally for their welcome. The sailors were shocked—they rarely if ever receive such favorable attention from their own senior officers, let alone from a foreigner.
“It only took five minutes,” Morley says, “but in that one simple action, Adm. Tyson made it clear to those 70 sailors, and the entire Cambodian delegation, that we had genuine intentions in understanding their Navy culturally and in forming lasting friendships. I’m certain none of them will ever forget that experience.”
Earlier in her career, Tyson served as executive assistant for Adm. Michael G. Mullen, who was then chief of naval operations. Now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and principal military adviser to President Barack Obama, Mullen presided at Tyson’s “frocking” ceremony at the Pentagon in 2007 when she was promoted to rear admiral.
“I’ve known and admired Nora a long time,” says Mullen. “She’s one of the most conscientious and humble leaders in the Navy today. It’s never about her—never. It’s first about the mission and always about her people. Just ask anyone who has ever worked for her. She gets the job done through teamwork and the power of her example.”
Tyson’s affection for the young Americans she leads is evident when she recalls the accidental death of a seaman under her command. “It’s really, really hard to lose a shipmate,” she says, “to write letters to the family, and go to the funeral. It’s heart wrenching.”
She also has tremendous respect for her troops. “The average age of the 6,000 men and women on my flagship is 19,” she notes. “It’s pretty amazing what they do every day, making the squadrons run, the airplanes fly, and maintaining the best state of readiness for whatever we are called on to do.
“We depend on them to do some pretty serious, dangerous work,” she continues. “They make enormous sacrifices to defend our freedom. It makes you feel pretty good about young people today. Our job is to give them what they need to succeed in life and to have the least amount of stress in their lives.”
Command can be lonely, she notes, when difficult decisions must be made: “You’re the ultimate decision maker. When those decisions affect other people’s lives, I gather all the information and input that I can. Then I find an inner space where I can tune everything else out, decide on the right thing to do, and live with my decision. It’s important to be able to look in the mirror and say, ‘I did the right thing.’”
As a youngster growing up in Memphis, Tenn., Tyson climbed trees, played ball, and crawled around in the airplanes her father flew as a navigator in the Army Air Corps and the Tennessee Air National Guard. Although she never considered a military career for herself back then, she ultimately followed in her father’s footsteps, becoming an airplane navigator right out of flight school.
Tyson attended St. Mary’s Episcopal High School, where she was one of 42 members of the class of 1975. She says she derived her strength and independence from her mother, whom she calls “a phenomenal woman.”
“She was ahead of her time,” Tyson recalls, “an independent woman who moved to New Orleans right after college to work as a medical technologist at Charity Hospital.” Unfortunately, neither of Tyson’s parents lived to see their daughter join the highest ranks of the U.S. Navy.
Entering Vanderbilt in the fall of 1975, Tyson made friends easily and “breezed through her studies,” according to classmate Laura Cumming Szyperski, BA’79, a Delta Delta Delta sorority sister. “Nora has a keen intellect. She’s a natural gatherer and organizer.”
Tyson also was a member of the Wild Bunch, a quasi-secret society of campus leaders who staged a mock “kidnapping” of then-Chancellor Alexander Heard in 1977. She remembers the late chancellor as “perfect for the job.”
“He really seemed to care about the students and understand what was important to them,” she recalls.
Shortly before graduation in 1979, Tyson, an English major at Vanderbilt, received a call “out of the blue” from a Navy recruiter who invited her to test for entry into Officers Candidate School (OCS). She completed OCS in Newport, R.I., and received her commission in the U.S. Navy in December the same year.
After a short stint of shore duty, Tyson reported for flight training in Pensacola, Fla. She earned her wings as a naval flight officer in 1983 and then served three tours in Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 4, including one as commanding officer. She also earned a master of arts in national security and strategic affairs from the U.S. Naval War College in 1995.
“When I joined the Navy, the recruiter never mentioned going to sea,” Tyson says.
In 1989 she became an assistant operations officer aboard the training aircraft carrier USS Lexington and, later, navigator aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise during hostilities in Kosovo.
“Ever since I served on the Lexington, I’ve loved going to sea,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun. But I never dreamed in a million years I’d be doing this. Sometimes I think to myself, ‘How did this happen?’”
Tyson says she hasn’t experienced discrimination or resentment from colleagues and subordinates because of her gender. However, she’s certainly heard stories about other women who have. She notes that most women who become the first to serve in any capacity in the military “will try harder because they have something to prove.”
“My goal throughout my career has been to do my best at whatever job I was given,” she continues. “I was very fortunate to have served in positions in both aviation squadrons and onboard ships that gave me experience that would serve me well when, eventually, more positions at sea opened up for women.”
Tyson’s husband of 22 years is Wayne Tyson, a retired Navy master chief. When at home in Williamsburg, Va., the Tysons enjoy golf, travel, and Wayne’s twin grandsons.
Recently approved for two stars, Tyson is the only rear admiral among Vanderbilt female graduates. In addition to Breast and Mixson, several other male alumni also have achieved flag rank. They include rear admirals Kendall Card, BE’77, and William Douglas French, BE’79, both on active duty, and Conrad J. Rorie, PhD’70, retired.
Tyson is intensely loyal, not only to the men and women under her command, but also to her Vanderbilt classmates of 30-plus years. “I had a great time the entire four years at Vanderbilt,” she says. “The friendships I made and the camaraderie have stuck with me through the years.”
Many of her Vanderbilt friends have faithfully followed Tyson’s career and attended many of her ceremonies; 11 of them traveled to her latest change-of-command ceremony in July.
“Nora always approached everything with humility and a great sense of humor,” says Mary Ellen Poindexter Chase, BA’79, Tyson’s high school and college sorority sister.
Dru Anderson, BA’80, EMBA’89, also a Tri Delta, remembers Tyson as “fun-loving and a natural leader.”
“My favorite memory of Nora is of her dancing to the oldies on the jukebox in our sorority house after class. Soon we were all dancing around with her and having fun,” she says. “You wanted to be with her and do what she was doing.”
Capt. Jamie Hopkins, commanding officer of Vanderbilt’s Naval ROTC unit, has tremendous respect for Tyson, who serves as air flag sponsor for the unit.
“Anyone who has ever met Rear Adm. Tyson is immediately struck by two things,” he says. “First, she is incredibly knowledgeable and professional. Second, she is one of the nicer individuals you will ever meet and someone who genuinely cares for all around her.”
Tyson credits lessons learned at Vanderbilt with influencing her leadership style. “Throughout my life I have learned that sincere relationships are very important both personally and professionally,” she says. “Listening and trying to understand something from another’s perspective are tremendous leadership tools.”
Although she has traveled far and wide since her student days, Rear Adm. Nora Wingfield Tyson has never forgotten where she came from. “Vanderbilt,” she says, “has a very special place in my heart.”
© 2015 Vanderbilt University | Photography: John Russell, U.S. Navy/Airman Pedro A. Rodriguez, U.S. Navy/Lt. Ed Early, U.S. Navy/Spc. 2nd Class Jason M. Tross, U.S. Navy/Spc. 2nd Class Lily Daniels, U.S. Navy/Airmen Jeremy L. Grisham, U.S. Navy/Aircrewman 3rd Class Joshua K. Horton, Jane Campbell
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Rear Adm. Nora Tyson’s promotion comes at a high-water mark for women in the military and the Navy in particular.
During the American Civil War, the Catholic Sisters of the Holy Cross tended the wounded aboard the USS Red Rover, the Navy’s first hospital ship.
The Navy Nurse Corps was established in 1908, and the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services) began during World War II. The first six enlisted women were sworn into the regular Navy in July 1948, and the first eight female officers were commissioned in October the same year.
After Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, the first woman was promoted to rear admiral. Women were initially assigned to noncombatant ships in 1978 and allowed to serve in combatants in 1994. In April 2010, the Navy announced that women could serve aboard submarines.
Today, 95 percent of Navy positions are open to women on all ships and aviation squadrons. Almost 8,000 women serve as officers in the Navy, and women comprise about 15 percent of its total personnel. Since 9/11, 110 women have lost their lives while serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait, according to the Center for Military Readiness. Women make up about 7.5 percent of the admiralty.
—Joanne Lamphere Beckham