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Carol Pottenger

BA 1977, History; HDR 2007, College of Liberal Arts

CEO, CMP Global LLC, Virginia Beach, VA

You might normally refer to Vice Admiral Carol Pottenger as a groundbreaker—until you realize that many of the “firsts” she achieved occurred at sea. She retired in June 2013 as Deputy Chief of Staff, Capability Development at NATO Headquarters Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, in Norfolk, VA. Although she admits the title is “quite a mouthful,” her essential responsibility, she explains, was “to help NATO’s 28 nations, and several partner nations, develop and deliver the military capabilities necessary to meet existing and emerging security challenges.”

Her 36 years of active duty in the U.S. Navy included several tours in the Pentagon, and in November 2006, Pottenger became the first female admiral to command a strike group when she assumed command of Amphibious Force 7th Fleet/Expeditionary Strike Group 7 at White Beach in Okinawa, Japan. Now a member of the Board of Directors for the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington DC, Pottenger is passionate about mentoring other young service members—including women achieving “firsts” of their own.

“When I was the Commander of the Amphibious Forces in 7th Fleet, I had eight ships and approximately 5000 Navy and Marine Corps service members under my command,” she recalls. “We deployed all over the Pacific, conducting exercises with allied nations and partners, providing humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and acting as American ambassadors in foreign ports. One ‘wow’ moment occurred when I was in South Korea and met with the first women officers to join their military. It was equally motivating for them and me. Throughout my career I have had many similar experiences with young women all over the globe—from India to Italy and everywhere in between!”

Purdue Influences

I chose to attend Purdue primarily for its stellar academic reputation and because in 1973, the Purdue Naval ROTC unit was only one of four in the country that was open to women. Four universities opened ROTC units to women in 1972, all opened in 1974, and the Service Academies opened in 1976. So, just as it led in many other aspects, Purdue led the way for women to be commissioned through ROTC! I focused my energies on my liberal arts degree and on my midshipman training. My civilian and military instructors and mentors were remarkable, providing me with the underpinnings to gain confidence in my abilities, to stretch my intellect, to become a leader at a young age. There was so much energy and passion at Purdue; people really cared about students and giving us the best education possible.

Purdue Memories

Every year the Quarterdeck Society recognized the outstanding midshipman of the year. In 1976 I was selected. It was traditional to present the selectee with a Naval Sword, but because I was the first woman to receive the award, I was asked if I wanted a chronometer or some other nautical memento. Since Naval Regulations at the time did not permit women to wear a sword in uniform, it was assumed that I would not want one. I told them that I absolutely wanted a sword! Subsequently approved for wear, I have proudly borne it in every significant ceremony during my entire career. It now rests in the place of honor in my military display case.

Another favorite memory is walking the campus in the dead of winter to meet friends at the Memorial Union. It was such an important place for us—of course no one had iPads or laptops then, but we could share notes, study together, and encourage each other. I really enjoy going back there and recalling those days; it was especially fun to be there during my participation in the Old Masters program.

A much more recent memory is receiving an honorary doctorate from Purdue. I can hardly express the depth of my gratitude for being so recognized by my alma mater. The ceremony was awesome, truly one of the most special times of my entire life.

Purdue Now

After graduation and commissioning, I went on to a very busy Navy career. I deployed overseas on ships numerous times, traveled all over the world, and rose to command huge organizations with thousands of personnel and billion dollar budgets. I did not maintain a close liaison with Purdue during much of that time. But when I was selected to be a flag officer in 2005, I was offered the opportunity to become the Navy Flag Mentor for the Purdue NROTC unit. [Editor’s note: A flag officer is a category of commissioned officers of a certain level that entitles the officer to fly a flag marking the position of her command.] I jumped at the chance to reestablish connections with my alma mater, and have the opportunity to mentor the next generation of public and military leaders. I quickly realized how much my experience at Purdue had shaped my own success: applying intellectual rigor to complex challenges; working as a team to help everyone be successful; and gaining a wide and comprehensive understanding of the liberal arts. Engineers may disagree, but I believe that a liberal education can be invaluable in preparing students to tackle any job or assignment!  I am proud to have graduated from such a distinguished university. Purdue has name recognition all over the world, and it is well deserved!

Greatest Achievement

My greatest achievement has been the opportunity to mentor young men and women throughout my Navy career. I gain great satisfaction from seeing them strive to succeed and offering a helping hand or word of advice along their path. I always say that in my career of public service, I got much more than I gave. In mentoring—paying it forward—my reward was observing those Sailors and civilians make something of themselves, and then pay it forward by mentoring someone else.

Another important achievement has been my time in command at sea and ashore. As a flag officer, I commanded dozens of ships and thousands of service members and civilians; often I was the first woman to be assigned to a job. But that never mattered to the Navy—its leaders didn’t care about gender, they just wanted the best qualified people. The Navy gave me the chance, over and over again, to prove myself. I grew tremendously both in a professional and personal sense, and looking back now at that young Purdue midshipman, I feel extremely lucky to have had such a rich and riveting life. It’s not over yet, though!

Person I Admire

I most admire my sister-in-law, Mary Condon, who passed away a month ago from pancreatic cancer. She was a fearless woman, always ready to help others, never asking anything for herself. My husband loved her dearly and we miss her more than we can say.

Idea of Perfect Happiness

My idea of perfect happiness is to be seen as a good person and a respected leader. My experiences and molding at Purdue provided the seed corn of an unbelievable Naval career. Today I have a wonderful husband, a loving family, many good friends—these comprise my wealth and my happiness. To continue to mentor young people, to continue to pay it forward— these are my goals.

What I’m Reading

I love reading history; of course you would expect that! I am currently reading American Phoenix: John Quincy and Louisa Adams, the War of 1812, and the Exile that Saved American Independence by Jane Hampton Cook. I’m sure that when I earned my BA in history at Purdue, I learned all about the critical years between our independence and the War of 1812, but a little refresher never hurts! I also greatly enjoy reading several magazines: The EconomistFortuneForbes and others.

Profession I’d Like to Try

Following my retirement from the U.S. Navy, I’m busy figuring out what I want to be when I grow up! I would like to work in the maritime industry, perhaps as the director of a port or for an international company such as Maersk.