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Agency Director's Career Mirrors Growing Opportunities for Women

Navy Vice Adm. Michelle Skubic dodges the limelight as much at 61 as she did at 4. 

A headshot of a uniformed service member with a flag in the background.
Navy Vice Adm. Michelle Skubic
Defense Logistics Agency Director Navy Vice Adm. Michelle Skubic is the agency’s first female director. She assumed command of the agency on July 24, 2020, at the McNamara Headquarters Complex, Fort Belvoir, Va.
Photo By: Christopher Lynch, DOD
VIRIN: 220422-D-HE260-1034B

"My favorite topic is not me. It never will be," she said, confiding that she's still the same shy girl whose first teacher pressed her to break free from her quiet shell. 

Despite a desire to move past the "distraction" of being the first woman in any military role, Skubic's career has put her in places that summon attention, from a ship that sailed into war before women were allowed to serve in combat to a military plane where she was the only woman 30,000 feet in the clouds — and in labor. 

Now nearing the end of her time as the Defense Logistics Agency's first female director, Skubic downplays the history she's made. 

"It's great to break the glass ceiling, but I'm only the agency's 20th director, not the 200th." 

It couldn't have happened 30 years ago, she continued, because it takes time to build the experience and resume needed for such a critical position, and career-enhancing opportunities haven't always been available to women in the military. 

A uniformed service member smiles while getting new rank insignia pinned on her uniform.
Skubic Promotion
Then-Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michelle Skubic gets her gold oak leaves pinned on in 1998 while assigned to the USS McFaul.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 230320-D-D0441-002C

Male-dominated environment 

The California native was 27 when she joined the Navy, fearless at serving in a male-dominated environment after a decade of bouncing between jobs that included banking and managing a nightclub. 

"I didn't think of myself then as being a woman in a man's world because I'd already been a teenager in a 30s- and 40s-something world," she said. "I was already different." 

Her first assignment was aboard the USS Acadia, a destroyer tender that provided repair and maintenance to other vessels. It was among the service's first integrated ships, and she was one of about 300 women on the 1,300-member crew. Women then were allowed to serve on oilers and other auxiliary ships. Submarines and combatant ships remained off-limits. 

"But then the Acadia was the first ship to leave the West Coast for the Persian Gulf and Desert Shield, which evolved into Desert Storm," she said. "You can't say women can't be in combat when they already are." 

Congress repealed the Combat Exclusion Policy in 1993, allowing women to serve on combatant ships. By then, Skubic was one of two women on a supply inspection team that spent four-day stints aboard still-all-male aircraft carriers. Female bathrooms and sleeping quarters didn't even exist. 

"They were always creative in where they put us," she said. "Sometimes they'd put us in the medical ward, or if the general officer wasn't on board we'd get the flag quarters." 

The Navy used Skubic's experience by putting her on the team that created policy for integrating women on aircraft carriers. 

"Of course, I was the only woman at the table — there were about a dozen of us — and I was the only person who'd been on an integrated auxiliary ship," she said. 

One of her male counterparts questioned whether to put armed guards outside female quarters and bathrooms. Their intentions were good, Skubic said, but she was dumbfounded. 

"I said, ‘Oh, my gosh. Do you put armed guards outside your bathroom at home because there's a woman taking a shower in there? We're each other's shipmates, and you shouldn't have to defend your shipmates against other shipmates.'" 

A uniformed service member sits on the hood of a military vehicle.
Kuwait Pose
Then-Navy Capt. Michelle Skubic poses for a photo during her deployment to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, where she served as commander of a Defense Logistics Support Team in May 2011.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 230314-D-D0441-1001C

Awkward hours 

In 1996, Skubic endured her most awkward hours as a woman in the military. Seven months pregnant with her second child, she was flying on a military airplane from Sicily to Spain for a supply conference when she became nauseous. The sickness lingered, sending her on repeated bathroom runs, and eventually she asked her seatmate to move elsewhere so she could lie down. 

"A few hours into the flight, it dawned on me that I was in labor," she said. 

She tapped the shoulder of her boss sitting in the seat in front of her to say she was having contractions. He suggested having an ambulance waiting at the flight line when the plane landed, but Skubic was too proud to walk off the plane into an emergency vehicle. They settled on a van driven by a duty officer. 

"Looking around, I thought, ‘Am I the only woman on this plane? Who am I going to ask to deliver this baby if I have to?' It wasn't going to be my boss, and I couldn't ask the maintenance officer, who I worked with every day," she said.  

Skubic huffed and puffed her way to the end of the flight, then walked off first after an announcement from the pilot asking passengers to remain seated as she made her way off the plane. Doctors rehydrated her and stopped the contractions. 

"The good news is that now there are more and more women in our military ranks and certainly in our civilian ranks," she said. "I'm certain that the next Michelle Skubic who goes into labor at 30,000 feet won't have to choose between which male counterpart to deliver her baby." 

Two uniformed service members walk side by side smiling.
Leaders Walk
Defense Logistics Agency Director Navy Vice Adm. Michelle Skubic, right, enters DLA Headquarters, Fort Belvoir, Va., Nov. 16, 2022, with Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, commander of U.S. Transportation Command and the military’s fifth female 4-star.
Photo By: Christopher Lynch, DOD
VIRIN: 221116-D-HE260-2002C

Better opportunities 

Leaders gradually increased opportunities for women as Skubic continued to serve. In 2010, women could begin serving on submarines. In 2013, they could serve in direct combat. And by 2015, women could have almost any job in the U.S. Armed Forces as long as they completed necessary training and met the requirements. 

Skubic sees women's progress in the military reflected even in uniform changes. Having achieved the right to fly planes, they've moved on to smaller issues: proper-fitting uniforms and relaxed hair standards. The Navy announced in December that women could finally wear colorless diamond or pearl stud earrings in addition to silver or gold balls. Skubic celebrated by ditching the gold ball studs she's worn for 34 years. 

"Let's face it, the reason why things like uniform standards are changing is because women are serving on uniform boards," she said. "Women now have influence, and the changes they've helped bring about make joining more appealing to younger women." 

DLA is fresh proof to Skubic that women belong in the military and at the helm. In July 2022, she stood on stage at DLA Land and Maritime as Army Brig. Gen. Gail Atkins assumed command from Navy Rear Adm. Kristen Fabry. 

"To be the one presiding over these two amazing female leaders, ingoing and outgoing, was such a cool moment," she said. 

A uniformed service member assumes command from her predecessor during a ceremony.
Command Change
Navy Vice Adm. Michelle Skubic, center, director of the Defense Logistics Agency, presides over the DLA Land and Maritime Change of Command ceremony July 22, 2022, at the Defense Supply Center Columbus, Ohio. Army Brig. Gen. Gail Atkins, right, assumed command from Navy Rear Adm. Kristen Fabry.
Photo By: Shannon Mormon, DOD
VIRIN: 220722-D-D0441-0374A

Secret to success 

Those who Skubic mentors often ask for her secret to success. Rather than describe her personal formula of deliberate planning and willingness to seize opportunities, she advises others to paint their own picture of success that includes personal and family aspirations and to seek career coaches. 

"I've been the beneficiary of a lot of folks who've said, ‘You've got XYZ skills and experience; you'd be good for this next opportunity," she said. "Matching talent with organizational needs and mission results in the perfect blend, and when an individual's personal and professional preferences match that, it's magic." 

Skubic's dream job, she admitted, is one that would've ended her trajectory to admiral: commander of the USS Constitution. Her dad, former Navy Cmdr. Thomas Coyne, served 20 years in the Navy and commanded Old Ironsides from 1972 to 1974 after his last tour in Vietnam. She said he was tickled by his daughter's dream and supported her ambitions but also knew it wouldn't fit the path of a Navy supply officer. He lived to see her pin on her first star but passed away just before she earned her second star and became the first female chief of the Naval Supply Corps. 

Skubic served as commander of DLA Land and Maritime from June 2016 to June 2018 and director of supplier operations at DLA Aviation from August 2008 to August 2011. She also commanded a DLA Support Team in Kuwait that assisted warfighters deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Being the first female at anything has never been Skubic's intent, she added. And she deflects attention to those she leads, the women — and men — who're on the frontlines throughout DLA. 

"I can give you examples of women across a multitude of pay grades who are just rock stars whether they're in our warehouses, on the police force or in our senior executive service ranks. I'm delighted that it doesn't matter what gender you are; if you're at DLA, you're part of a special team that does great, great work." 

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