Keith is First Female Construction Mechanic Master Chief

By MCC Leslie Shively, Regional Command Southwest

EQCM(SCW) Kathy Keith, NMCB 4, Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan

Master Chief Equipmentman (SCW) Kathy Keith chuckles at the idea she has a soft side; and laughs out loud if someone mentions her iron foot.

EQCM Keith claims the title of first female construction mechanic master chief and is a Seabee, a double-down rarity. Though she’s reached the top of the food chain – master chief is the highest rank an enlisted person can achieve in the Navy – it’s been a winding road full of potholes.

During her years at Fort Zumwalt High School in her hometown of O’Fallon, Mo., she toyed with the idea of studying psychiatry, but chose to operate and repair trucks instead of sorting out another person’s mind. She became interested in the Navy while attending trade school for diesel mechanics so she could drive big rigs cross country.

“I decided I didn’t want to deal with everybody’s problems because psychiatrists usually drive themselves nuts,” Keith explained with a slight grin. “But I didn’t want to drive a truck without knowing how to fix it. I’d always worked on equipment – doing cars and stuff with my dad.”

A friend from trade school enlisted into the Seabees and Keith “got stuck” telling her recruiter it was construction mechanic or nothing. She enlisted and in 1984 entered boot camp. Afterward, she was assigned to Public Works in Bahrain and several other duty stations until she finally landed a Seabee battalion. She became part of the Alfa Company nicknamed “Alfa Dawgs” – a traditionally male association. Females were banned from ground combat units until 1994 by Congress, so battalions were off limits to her until then.

Checking into her fourth command she was told, “We don’t need a Seabee here, so I don’t know why you’re checking in; and we definitely don’t need a female Seabee.” Her less-than-warm welcome was commonplace.

“How many challenges do you want?” Keith asks. “I spent my whole career trying not to be a female Seabee – just a good Seabee. My name was always highlighted, bolded, something. I understand for berthing that you need to remember that ‘Kathy’ is a girl, but for everything? Do I really need to stand out for everything? It used to torque me to no end.”

Keith stuck with it. “Yeah,” she said matter-of-factly, adding that sometimes she stayed out of spite. “Don’t tell me I can’t, ‘cause I will.”

Her biggest hurdle was credibility. She knew she could do the job. But convincing her male counterparts took patience and timing. For example, at her third command as a second class petty officer, no one spoke to her for the first few months. So, if another Seabee was changing out “dualies,” the double wheels on a large vehicle, she would stop what she was doing to help without saying a word. Eventually her fellow Seabees figured out she was an asset to the shop.

This current deployment is Keith’s second in Afghanistan. She’s been to Bahrain, Scotland, Guam and Japan. She’s off-loaded ships using ship-board cranes with Navy Cargo Handling Port Group, while deployed to Korea, Thailand and Florida.

Keith has always been the take-charge type. At her first command in Bahrain, she led the reactionary force. In Thurso, Scotland, she served as fire chief for the base and taught structural fire fighting. As a platoon commander, she took misfit Sailors others found too difficult.

CMDCM(SCW) Kathy Keith (right) awards UT2(EW) Jessica San Roque, both assigned to NMCB 4
EQCM(SCW) Kathy Keith (right) awards UT2(EW) Jessica San Roque the Expeditionary Warfare pin in Afghanistan, Dec. 16. Both assigned to NMCB 4, CM Keith served as a mentor for UT2 San Roque.Photo by MCC Leslie Shively

At Naval Construction Training Center (NCTC) Port Hueneme, Calif., she mentored hardcore teens and young adults. A program through the California Youth Authority in Ventura, Calif., gave parolees the chance to attend the Navy Construction Mechanics Apprentice School.

“Those kids might have been in for murder, assault, drugs – whatever,” Keith explains. Again her ‘kids’ far exceeded expectations. “They studied all night – they were serious about it.” According to an article in the Dec. 19, 1998, edition of the Los Angeles Times, the program was so successful, the Navy wanted to expand it.

Keith continues mentoring Seabees in her battalion. She laughs softly when Chief Equipment Operator Jason Phillips, NMCB 4, calls her mom. What’s the joke? Although she chose to fix vehicles throughout her career, Keith has always fixed others.

“She takes care of everybody,” EOC Phillips said. “When I was out on a remote patrol base and I needed something. I sent her an email. Two days later I had it…She will get it done. It’s very much like family.”

“She cares more about her troops than anybody I’ve ever worked for,” said Equipment Operator 2nd Class Daniel Sullivan. But he warns that Keith has a tough love side.

“Whether you like it or not, she’s going to make sure you’re squared away,” EO2 Sullivan said, adding that she “cured” him of not performing at his capabilities.

Does she deliver her medicine with a spoon full of sugar? “She could deliver it with her foot,” Sullivan offered with a laugh. He credits Keith for his work ethic and initiative.

In her off time, Keith earned a bachelor of science degree in criminology with a heavy dose of psychology on the side. She said the combination fits perfectly with her job, and trying to understand others hasn’t driven her crazy yet.

After this deployment, Keith plans to retire to her ranch in Missouri, work for one of the vets in her hometown, drive for the grain elevator during harvest season and train horses during the day. She is thinking about getting a grooming license.

“I have my fingers in a few pots – we’ll see what happens.”

“Honor, Purpose, Challenge: Women of the Seabees and Civil Engineer Corps” highlights the heritage, roles and contributions of today’s women of the Seabees and Civil Engineer Corps.

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