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NEWS | July 11, 2023

Reserve Sailor Becomes First Female Gunner's Mate Master Chief Petty Officer

By Petty Officer First Class Jeanette Mullinax

History was quietly made during a ceremony inside the Delbert D. Black National Chief’s Mess at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., April 28, 2023, when reserve Master Chief Gunner’s Mate Jessica Harrison became the first woman to achieve the rank of Master Chief Petty Officer in the Gunner's Mate rating.

Gunner’s Mate is one of the five original ratings established in The Naval Armament Act of 1794 along with Boatswain’s Mate, Quartermaster, Master-at-Arms, and Yeoman.

During a brief speech, Harrison reflected on her achievement, answering a question that she commonly receives – “How did you do it?”

“The thing I always say is: not by myself,” Harrison said. “It's my sailors, my mentors, my friends... It’s through the connections that we have with our shipmates.”

While Harrison’s advancement was a historical achievement for the Gunner’s Mate community, her milestone also signified a triumph for all enlisted Sailors as a sign of the progress that women have made in the military.

Chief of Navy Reserve, Vice Adm. John Mustin presided at the event to recognize Harrison’s accomplishments and administer the oath of enlistment in front of her family and friends, as well as visitors of the memorial.

“This is a pretty significant accomplishment as an individual milestone, but also for the service; probably long overdue, but I couldn't be more psyched to be here to share this moment with you,” Mustin said during the ceremony. “I am thrilled that every one of you has an opportunity to reflect on this moment because we're going to be able to look back on this and say that we were there the moment it happened.”

By achieving the rank of E-9, Harrison joined a small fraction of leadership charged with bridging the gap between officers and enlisted personnel, while acting as supervisors and advocates for their Sailors.

In keeping with ceremonial customs, Harrison also handed down her Senior Chief insignia to a Sailor who she believes is ready to take on greater responsibility at the next rank. Chief Gunner’s Mate Kali Larraga accepted them with an embrace.

As part of her speech, Harrison recognized Larraga’s growth as a Sailor and leader. Elaborating more during an interview, Harrison described how Larraga’s words helped her realize the weight of her achievement.

“She said, ‘we're looking for someone to show us it can be done’... that was a big eye-opener for me,” Harrison said. “Looking up and seeing somebody who looks like you is a powerful thing. She made me see that, and she probably doesn’t understand the enormity of it, but one day she will.”

Although Harrison’s promotion marks a first for the service, unrestricted opportunities for women in the Navy were not always present.

Only since 1994 has the service allowed women to lawfully work in combat roles, despite the critical positions that women have held in the Navy since 1908 when the Navy Nurse Corps was first established by Congress.

Over the years, the Navy has made strides toward the inclusion of women and throughout her time in service, Harrison has witnessed first-hand the cultural shift regarding women in the military.

“I remember when I walked in [to my first command], I was asked if I was the new admin,” Harrison said. “But I don't hear those questions anymore. I see it becoming more commonplace to have females work in weapons fields. And I think the only way that we continue to drive that as a Navy is to remove the barriers and remove the division.”

Committed to further removing barriers for Sailors, Harrison now works at the Chief of Naval Personnel headquarters, in Arlington, Virginia. In the Navy’s Culture and Force Resilience Office, leading enlisted Sailors and advising a team of officers in matters that include diversity, equity, and inclusion policy updates and holistic support services for the fleet.

Previously, Harrison delivered educational training to the fleet on the Navy’s Warrior Toughness program, which emphasizes developing the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of Sailors.

Harrison has served in the Navy Reserve for 17 years, 14 of those years on active duty orders. During that time, she deployed to Iraq and Kuwait, completed a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree and a Ph.D. in Education, while also raising her young sons, Logan and Trey.

“I always wanted to show my children that it could be done, and I was the first of my siblings to even graduate,” Harrison said.

Harrison’s accomplishments have demonstrated her drive, determination and commitment to the Navy and to her family. Her story should serve as inspiration to not only past and present Sailors, but also to anyone who hopes to someday serve in the armed forces.

“One day, we're going to not be a Navy of firsts,” Harrison said. “I look forward to that day.”

Harrison’s accomplishment was mirrored by Gunner’s Mate Senior Chief Jessica Saunders, who screened for Master Chief Petty Officer by the Fiscal Year 2024 Active-Duty Navy E9 Screening Board in May.