BETHESDA, Md., March 30, 2016 — About 18 percent of active-duty sailors are women, and serving in the even more male-dominated field of master-at-arms, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Colleen Dibble knows about being the only woman in the room.
For 11 months, she was the only female master-at-arms during her first assignment to Misawa Air Base, Japan, and has been one of the few women to work in Naval Support Activity Bethesda’s security department since she came to the installation in 2013.
But Dibble said she views herself as just another member of the team.
“You can’t have bias,” she said. “You have to see yourself as an equal, and you have to be an equal. So you’re in the same boat. We’re all sailors — not male, not female — we’re all sailors. We’re all trying to get the mission accomplished.”
Learning from a Mentor
That said, Dibble noted, it is helpful to have a female mentor to guide her through the challenges she faces as a woman working in a male-dominated field. As her leaders are all men, she had to go outside her command to find Navy Lt. Cmdr. Melissa Burke, a former master-at-arms who now works with the Warrior Family Coordination Cell.
Burke said she gives Dibble advice on how to handle stressful situations and passes on advice she received from female colleagues when she was a master-at-arms in the ’90s.
Dibble has grown during her time here, Burke said, adding that she’s honored to be her mentor.
“She’s branched out from ‘I’m a sailor, and now let me think what needs to be done,’ to ‘Let me think about my fellow sailors and how I can mentor them and how I can help them,’” Burke said.
Another woman Dibble said she looks up to is Navy Adm. Michelle Howard, who became the Navy’s first female vice chief of naval operations and first female four-star admiral in 2014.
“She speaks a lot on different leadership traits, which I like,” Dibble said. “I look up to her. She comes here often, but I haven’t seen her yet.”
During her time here, Dibble has been tasked with starting the base’s crime prevention program. One of her biggest responsibilities was putting on a National Night Out event.
“She networked with so many people out in the local community [and] inside the base populations, and she far exceeded anyone’s expectations,” said Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Raymond Herrera, a master-at-arms and the security department’s leading petty officer. “There was food, vendors, and so many things put together that it completely blew people’s minds. … She didn’t have to do that. She could’ve done something really small, but she took it upon herself and said, ‘I want this to be huge, I want it to be lasting, and I want it to continue on even when I’m gone from this installation.’ She set the bar really high.”
That event was a major accomplishment for Dibble, not because it was a big event but because it got the sailors excited about working in the community.
“The sailors enjoyed themselves, and they keep asking me, ‘When’s the next event?’” she said.
Dibble, 28, said she joined the Navy because her goal is to join the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. She is a step closer to that goal, as she is cross-rating to legalman and leaving here to go to Naval Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island.
She was the first member of her family to enlist in the military, and her re-enlistment is scheduled to take place during a Washington Capitals hockey game at the Verizon Center in April.
Breaking Down Barriers
Dibble said she always has been interested in sports, but it wasn’t until she came here that she decided to play football, which she said is one of her favorite sports. Before playing on a team, she coached a youth football team and was the coach of the Naval Air Facility Misawa Command Team.
“I never felt that I was good enough to play football,” Dibble said. “I always thought of football as a guy’s sport.”
That changed after she played on her Purdue alumni flag football team, where she saw a flyer to try out for the Washington Prodigy all-women’s tackle football team. She now plays left guard on the offensive line for the team and said she likes being able to get in hits and tackles during each play. “I’ve gone against some people that are three times the size of me,” she said. “It’s just such a good game — that’s why I love playing it.” Dibble said she plans to continue being involved with the sport in some fashion after she moves to Rhode Island.
Dibble and Burke both said they’ve seen changes in allowing women to perform roles in the military that were traditionally done by men.
“We continue to break down barriers and show we actually have a lot to bring and a lot to offer to those [security] fields,” Burke said.
Dibble said she wouldn’t necessarily call herself a role model. “I just try to set [my sailors] up for success,” she said. “I make sure that the other sailors are motivated, and I want everyone to succeed.”