Trailblazing Capt. Gail Harris on Her Many ‘Firsts’ in the Military

Gail Harris speaks with Adrienne Vogt about breaking barriers in the military by refusing to accept limitations.

Gail Harris doesn’t take “no” for an answer.

That’s how she ended up being the first woman to serve as an Intelligence Officer in a Navy combat job—back in 1973, about 20 years before a federal law prohibiting females from going into combat was overturned in 1994.

Disrupting a 200-year tradition wasn’t always easy. “Sometimes I found that when you break new ground, you make enemies,” Harris says.

But she didn’t let them stop her from becoming the highest-ranking black female in the Navy by the time she retired in 2001. With assignments that took her from Kuwait to Spain, she brought the no-nonsense, self-sufficient ethos of the military with her wherever she went and employed those values even when the odds were stacked against her.

She blazed a trail during her military tenure with a bevy of firsts, among them: first female and black female to be designated an Intelligence Watch Specialist in the Navy, first female and black instructor at the Armed Forces Air Intelligence Training Center at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado, and first female and black head of the Navy’s largest aviation squadron.

Harris’s military career started when she was 5 years old. She was watching a movie, Wing and a Prayer, with her father. As actor Don Ameche’s character gave an intelligence briefing to Navy pilots after the attack on Pearl Harbor, she turned to her father and said, “Daddy, that’s what I’m going to do when I grow up.” Her dad—who had been in the Army during World War 2 when it was still segregated—looked at her and replied, “This is America. You can be whatever you want.” Those proved to be big words for a little girl growing up in inner-city Newark, N.J.

After graduating from Drew University in Madison, N.J., in 1971, Harris joined the Navy. While at Officer Candidate School in Rhode Island—as one of the first women to go through the new intelligence training program, she found out that women were simply being sent to desk jobs in Washington, D.C. after their training. During one of her classes, a Navy lieutenant went around asking all the men what they wanted their first assignments to be. She finally spoke up, saying that she wanted to be part of an aviation squadron.

So Harris did her homework. She found there was no reason why the Navy could not send a woman to a land-based aviation squadron; the law at the time only mandated that women couldn’t deploy on a ship that might go into combat.

After petitioning for the assignment through her chain of command, the Navy decided to make her a test case. In 1973, she became the first woman, in a squad of 360 men, assigned to an operational combat job as an intelligence officer.

Her joy soon turned to frustration, as she realized the job came with low expectations.

“When I arrived at that first assignment [at Moffett Field, Calif.], I found out that the squadron wanted the honor of having the first woman, but they didn’t expect me to do anything,” Harris says. “So I decided to do whatever I could to show them that I could do the job, and refused to be just a symbol.”

Harris says she definitely experienced discrimination many times for being a woman in the Navy. It was mostly manifested in smaller instances, such as people refusing to salute her, officers telling her she was taking a job away from a man, and being kept as an assistant intelligence officer for 2-and-a-half years instead of only one.

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When asked where she has served throughout her 28-year military career, she says, “It’s probably easier for me to say where I didn’t,” with a booming, hearty laugh.

She started out covering the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean, spent 3 years in Japan, served in the Central Command Naval Forces—which included the Red Sea, Turkey, and Bahrain—after the Gulf War, and was also sent to Greece, Italy, and Spain. Harris provided intelligence architecture, designing how the forces would procure information, what kind of computer systems would be used, and how many people would be needed to accomplish an operation.

Harris’s second assignment was at the Fleet Ocean Surveillance Information Facility, where she was responsible for monitoring classified information, putting out news releases to the Navy and making sure that the intelligence she produced was getting out to all segments of the military. Since the U.S. intelligence community collects more than one billion pieces of information every day, it can be a daunting task.

Getting critical information to the right people is something that Harris seems to do even when she’s off the clock. In fact, Harris once helped a key member of the Bush administration. It was about 1981, and she was working on her master’s degree at the University of Denver. A young woman approached asking for help with information about the Soviet military. Harris worked with her a couple times. “I remember the last time I saw her, she was walking away, and I went, ‘You know, there’s something very special about that Condi Rice,’” she says with a chuckle.

Despite the progress made, today’s military still faces its share of challenges, Harris says.

One of the more prominent issues is the sexual-assault crisis, on the heels of a Pentagon report that there were 26,000 instances of sexual assault in the military in 2012. Harris agrees with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) proposal to take sexual-assault cases out of the military chain of command. She says she’s personally had both men and women confide to her that they had been sexually assaulted—by both military personnel and outsiders—but were too embarrassed to report it.

“How can an 18-year-old girl feel like she can go up the chain of command and tell on her boss? He is the chain of command,” she says.

Harris also worries about instability from sequestration cuts, keeping track of an increasing amount of data, and lack of opportunities for military members to further their education.

While speaking about education, Harris related a story from one of her first assignments. She was requested by name to go to Panama—but she didn’t even speak Spanish. She had to educate herself about the country’s culture and language. “Learn it on your own,” she says.

And her own way is exactly how she’s always done it.