Lieutenant Jamie L Sharkey: Pushing Boundaries for Women with Grace
article by Erin McMahan
images by Ryan Flynn
One can only imagine the gamut of emotions Lieutenant Jamie Sharkey felt as she experienced the fulfillment of her vision come to fruition on January 16th of this year. The USS Carl Vinson, on which Sharkey serves as the Assistant Navigator (or ANAV) already had the distinction of being the only aircraft carrier to currently have an all-female Navigation team. Sharkey’s excellence in leadership training and crew support resulted in the creation of the first ever all female Bridge Crew on a US Naval aircraft carrier, comprised of 12 highly qualified and skilled mariners which pulled the Vinson out of San Diego for the last time en route to Bremerton, WA.
This accomplishment seems to be par for the course when you look back on Sharkey’s Naval career and the influence she’s had during each part of her journey, including training and tours. In addition to praising her compassion in fundraising for worthy causes, her grit in achieving results above expectations during training and her demonstrated leadership in team building and mentoring, Sharkey’s Commanding Officer has this to say in his recommendation of LT Jamie L Sharkey for the 2018 Captain Joy Bright Hancock Leadership Award: “LT Sharkey is the heart and soul of my Bridge, responsible for the safe navigation of the ship and the safety of 5000 Sailors that trust her skill and dedication to training with their lives. She is a revolutionary leader by every standard, bringing credit upon women in the Navy and to women worldwide. Her selfless commitment to serving those she leads is the sign of a true and visionary leader….”
If reviewing her High School career and ambitions, one would probably not predict that this was the path this native Missoulan’s career would take as there hadn’t really been any military influences in her life. Jamie confesses that there are a few things she is passionate about. Homemade pasta, spending as much time as possible with her family, helping people turn dreams into reality and Flathead Lake, MT. So, the decision to leave her home state was not a light one. But during her days at Sentinel High School an inborn wanderlust caused her to look at out-of-state options in the Pacific Northwest for college. Jamie’s plans took a drastic detour while on a flight to Florida for Decca National Championships her senior year. As a self-professed extrovert, Jamie naturally struck up a conversation with her uniformed seatmate who she learned was a recent graduate of the US Naval Academy. This being the first time she had heard of such a place, Jamie eagerly soaked up his descriptions of the school and the opportunities afforded for travel and careers on the sea and in the air.
Returning home, Jamie filled her family in on her discovery of and new interest in the US Naval Academy. They started researching the school located in Annapolis, Maryland and discovered that a soccer camp was offered on the grounds. As Jamie had played soccer throughout her whole school career, her supportive parents saw this as a first step for her to put her feet on the ground and learn about the campus. During this summer camp, Jamie was able to witness “Plebe Summer” which is a training program required of all incoming freshman or “plebes” to the Academy. She fell in love with what she witnessed, including the arduous physical training it included.
At this point, Jamie decided to put all of her eggs in one basket and withdrew all other college applications with her eyes set firmly on becoming an Officer in the Navy via the US Naval Academy. She describes being “behind the curve” in her timing to apply and be accepted. This was certainly the case as Military Career Service Mentors advise starting the process of getting an appointment in 9th grade, and some even urge beginning preparations in Middle School. Besides the stringent academic and physical testing, applicants must receive a nomination from a US Congressman or Senator. Knowing about the mountain of time sensitive requirements facing a High School senior, her hard work and tenacity is even more evident as she received her nomination (actually 3 nominations from both Senators Max Bacus and Conrad Burns and Congressman Denny Rehberg.) and was accepted into the Academy via a year of prep school at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts. ..
In Spring of 2009, Sharkey graduated as an Ensign with an Officer’s Commission and with a Bachelor of Science degree with an emphasis on International Relations in the Middle East. During their senior year, the First Class Midshipmen put in their preferences for career paths including Surface Warfare Officer, US Marine, Submariner, Navy Seal and Naval Aviator. Their personality, aptitude and grades as evidenced during their 4 years at the Academy all help to inform the decision of their placement. Jamie put Navy Pilot first on her list and was awarded her first choice. Jamie spent part of the summer after graduation working at The Naval Academy Preparatory School (NAPS) in Newport, Rhode Island where her love for mentoring and leadership was born. During this time she was able to teach, tutor and mentor prospective Naval Academy Midshipmen also known as “NAPSters.” When Sharkey talks about her life in the Navy, it’s plain to see that using her leadership skills to help people succeed when they might otherwise have given up, is a huge part of what makes her come alive and motivates her work.
Finally, in the Fall of 2009, Jamie started flight school. Beginning with Aviation Preflight Indoctrination in Pensacola, Florida she started what would be a three year journey to achieving her Naval Aviator’s Wings of Gold. Following ground school, she qualified in the single engine T-34C Turbo Mentor where she put in her preference for flying multi-engine aircraft vice jets or helicopters. She then moved onto the twin engine T-44C Beechcraft King Air culminating with her earning her wingsand designation as a Maritime Patrol Naval Aviator in February of 2012. Sharkey’s flight training was studded with notable moments. One such testimony to her community connection is the group of Vietnam and Korean War vets who traveled to Corpus Christi, TX from Pensacola, FL to witness her winging ceremony. These were gentleman whom Sharkey had built a relationship with during her short 6 weeks in Pensacola. Evenings at the Officer’s Club were spent learning, “old school dice games” and soaking up the stories and wisdom from these pilots who had gone before her. One of the vets presented her with his original 24kt gold wings, which Jamie has framed and proudly displayed in her home. At this point she reported to the Fleet Replacement Squadron VP-30 at NAS Jacksonville, FL where she was designated Patrol Plane Pilot then headed out to NAS Whidbey Island to join the Screaming Eagles of Patrol Squadron One.
Beginning in December of 2012, Sharkey qualified as Patrol Plane Commander and Mission Commander, earning accolades for being among the strongest Anti-Submarine Warfare tacticians logging more than 30 hours of live submarine time on top, in addition to being awarded a Maverick Missile shot. Her crew was the “go-to” for specialized high visibility missions on a Fifth Fleet Deployment to Sheik Isa Air Base in Bahrain, and a Seventh Fleet Deployment to Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan Of the past six years, Jamie has spent more than half of it overseas away from her loved ones. Sharkey recalls gaining an understanding of what some women in other countries experience throughout their lives during her time providing aerial coverage and protection of US aircraft carriers transiting the Strait of Hormuz in the Middle East.. When responding to routine radio queries made by Iran, the Iranians would respond with a barrage of loud, insulting rhetoric after hearing Sharkey’s female voice replying with the protocol answer. A woman in such a position of authority was and remains unheard of in their culture.. “These radio calls and time abroad made me appreciate the free and evolving world we live in today. Hearing those insults on the radio reminded me of exactly why I was there flying the mission in the first place. I feel very proud of my contributions to the wonderful and incredible free country that we are fortunate enough to live in.” Part of this tour also included 7 months in Japan where Sharkey and her crew performed Acoustic Processing to detect and track foreign submarines. Here she was responsible for making all mission decisions in the best interest of the country and her crew during 8-12 hour missions. “The responsibility and trust that comes with being the aircraft commander and mission commander is humbling something that I am honored to do. I am trusted with making the decisions and in asking a crew of 11 or more people to join me on a mission sometimes in the middle of the night to go out there and find the bad guys. These Sailors and their families trust that you are going to get them home every day and doing just that has been one of my life’s greatest accomplishments.”
In March of 2016, Sharkey traveled to Norfolk, VA to begin a one year assignment as Flag Aide to Admiral Kyle Cozad, whom she describes as, “One of the most inspirational and visionary leaders of our time.” Though her job description was to oversee the Admiral’s daily schedule and long-term calendar, her duties went beyond this typical scope. Admiral Cozad entrusted her to speak on his behalf and address large audiences on the new “Triton” drone program around the world including the Ministry of Defense in London, Commander of Air Forces in Australia as well as deployed Maritime Patrol sites in Sigonella, Italy, and Kadena Air Force Base, Japan. LT Sharkey believes her experiences throughout this year both at the Pentagon and around the world, gave her a greater understanding of how our Federal government works behind the scenes as well as empowered her to greater influence.
In May of 2017, LT Sharkey reported to the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), the tour which she is currently in the process of wrapping up. Sharkey feels honored that her superiors thought enough of her abilities to offer her the job of Assistant Navigator (ANAV) on board CVN-70, as there is only one ANAV per carrier totaling 11 people in the country who hold this position at any given time. Jamie explains that her leadership skills have been especially developed and honed during this assignment and that she’s never been more stretched with the weight of responsibility she carries, often on little sleep. The Carl Vinson during her tenure safely transited over 100,000 nautical miles and anchored in Manila, Phillippines and in DaNang, Vietnam. Her current Commanding Officer states,“LT Sharkey leads by encouraging teamwork and allowing Sailors to think and solve problems in their own way. She empowers peers and subordinates to achieve results and believes that we can all learn from each other. With a clear end goal and guidance along the way, her Sailors consistently perform above the mark in every category.” With her recent promotion to Lieutenant Commander, she is enjoying a little less hectic schedule after dry docking the Carl Vinson and awaiting her next posting.
Sharkey is quick to give much of the credit of her success to her family, whom she calls her, “life’s greatest blessing.” Her amazingly supportive and inspirational parents taught her everything she knows and made decisions along the way to provide her with confidence in herself as a person and leader that she would need to leave Montana. Her mother Debbie, a passionate caregiver and nurse, taught her to always take care of the lowest man on the totem pole first; her father Ron of Sharkey Insurance Center taught her best through her athletic career in using adversity and challenges to rise to a new higher level setting new goals along the way. Her brothers, Ryan and Brandon, are two of the most committed and loyal people she knows and are her best friends and confidants.
When asked about being a woman in the world of aviation, Jamie exudes gratitude for the women who have blazed the trail before her and for her Naval colleagues who have always treated her as an equal. Although she didn’t dream of being a pilot as a little girl, she did have a conviction to grow up and do something that women hadn’t always been able to do. Sharkey recalls this decision being sparked as a twelve-year-old girl on a family trip to San Diego. She distinctly recalls the moment that lit a fire in her heart inspiring her to pursue things outside of what may have been considered “the ordinary” in the early ‘90’s. Hearing the usual “Good Morning, this is your Captain” greeting from the cockpit in a female’s voice, Jamie describes leaning over the armrest into the aisle trying desperately to see this woman who was her first female Captain on a commercial flight. She exuded the same confidence you would expect from any airline Captain, yet spoke with an eloquence and put her personal touch on a job that she was clearly proud of and one that Jamie had only seen done by a man. Sharkey decided at that point to follow her lead someday and go out of her comfort zone to be strong and powerful like this woman. “I have been blessed to grow up with and be inspired by a multitude of incredible women from my mom to aunts and grandmothers, Sharon Yould at Cold Springs School, as well as my close friends from Sentinel who inspired me every day along with the Missoula community at large. It really does take a team to make someone successful and it is imperative to surround yourself with quality people who will encourage and inspire you. Without the support of all of these women, I would not be where I am today. Montana is an amazing place and one that defines me, but there is a big huge world out there. My advice is to go see it! It only makes moments like seeing the Mission Mountains appear around the corner on 93, or being the first to “see the lake” coming into Polson that much more precious.”
Currently, Jamie is living in Seattle, Washington spending her evenings after work with her two Great Danes Isabella and Bohannan, hiking and enjoying living in the Pacific Northwest.