GUAM – One of the few females holding a high-ranking position in the United States Navy is a Filipino.
Born in Hawaii to Filipino parents, US Navy Rear Admiral Bette Bolivar was raised in a traditional Filipino family.
“Ang tatay ko ay taga Bicol at ang nanay ko ay taga Pangasinan (My father is from Bicol and my mother hails from Pangasinan),” Bolivar told The STAR in fluent Filipino.
Bolivar came from humble beginnings, the second of four children of Teddy Sereno Bolivar and Virginia Dolor Bolivar. Her father joined the US Navy as a steward and retired as a chief petty officer after 22 years in the service.
The first woman to assume the position of Commander Joint Region Marianas, Bolivar also holds the distinction of being the first female commander of Navy Region Northwest.
She is also the first woman to hold a number of other important positions. She is the US Defense Representative for Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau, and Commander of Naval Forces Marianas.
As US Defense Representative for the Marianas Region, Bolivar reports to Admiral Samuel Locklear, Commander of US Pacific Command, and Admiral William French, Commander of Naval Installation Command. She also plays an important role in the Joint Interagency Task Force as Commander of Task Force West.
Bolivar’s area of responsibility includes the US territory of Guam, which is the closest US naval base to Philippines. Her command plays a pivotal role in shaping US policy in the Asia Pacific region, particularly in the face of President’s Obama’s “pivot” to the Asia Pacific.
Wearing daddy’s hat
As a young child, Bolivar would tag along when her father went to work on military bases. She had fun wearing her daddy’s Navy hat, but in those days she had no idea that someday she would wear the same hat with the same great pride.
Her early exposure to the military community played a huge part in her career choice, but she thought of joining the service as payback for giving her father the opportunity to become a member of the US Navy.
“My father didn’t serve as a warrior like me. Back in those days, Filipinos, African Americans and Chamorros could only enter the service as a steward or cook. I feel like I have to give back to the Navy because they gave my father a chance,” she said.
Although her father inspired her, Bolivar said the decision to join the Navy was her own and was not something imposed by her parents.
Her older sister has a career outside of the military in Hawaii while her two younger brothers both served in the Navy. One is now a veteran and the other a retired senior chief petty officer residing in Annapolis.
She said her father used to call her the “tomboy” of the family because her parents wanted a boy as a second child. At that time, ultrasound was not available to determine a child’s gender but their doctor kept telling her father that their next baby would be a boy because the heartbeat was so strong.
She confessed she knew early on that she would be in the military like her father, but this early vision was almost sidetracked by the thought of studying law at the University of Hawaii.
However, an overheard conversation set her off on a military career. One night she was listening to the conversation of her father and her younger brother at the dinner table while she was washing the dishes.
“I was eavesdropping and I could hear my dad telling my younger brother that the best path to the Navy is through the Naval Academy. The next day I went to the naval base and talked to an officer who explained to me the process. I found out it was a hard process. You need to be nominated by a state individual, they will evaluate everything including your grades. I told the officer that I still want to get the application. I filled up the paper work and took it home. I told my parents the next day that I wanted to go. When I asked my parents to sign my application, they looked at me and asked: ‘Anak (child) are you sure you want to do this?’ I said: Absolutely! They didn’t sign it right away because they wanted me to sleep on it, they thought that maybe they had forced it upon me. But I already made up my mind, and I want to see if I would be accepted,” Bolivar recalled.
Bolivar was so determined that she had decided that if she couldn’t make it to the Naval Academy she would enlist to join the Navy.
Her perseverance was tested in the academy, not because she was a woman but because the four-year training and education for future Navy officers was difficult and rigorous.
Bolivar graduated from Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science degree in Oceanography. She later completed her Master of Science in Management from Troy State University.
Her first tour was as fleet and message center officer of the US Naval Communication Station in San Miguel, Philippines. She recorded remarkable achievements in various positions, including assignments in explosive ordnance disposal, diving and salvaging units, specialties normally held by men.
As special operations officer, Bolivar served as the director of ammunition offload from USS Cole after the 2000 terrorist attack in Yemen. She became the fourth woman to take command of a Navy diving and salvage ship when she was assigned as the commanding officer of USS Salvor and led her crew through a six-month Western Pacific deployment.
Graduating from the Naval Academy, Bolivar knew that she wanted to be a diver. However, for every four or five openings for men to become a diver there is only one reserved for a woman.
The first time she applied, she wasn’t accepted, and her perseverance was tested when she was rejected a second time.
“I kept applying and applying, and they kept saying no. I was very persistent. I told myself if they don’t accept me on my third application I would try something else,” she said. Fortunately, she made it on her third try.
In 2001, she was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame, the international honor society of divers who made outstanding contributions to the exploration, understanding, safety and enjoyment of the underwater world.
Bolivar’s passion for diving gave her one of her most memorable and challenging assignments. As the commanding officer of USS Salvor, her vessel and crew were tasked to stop in Guam and recover/clear stranded vessels in and around Apra Harbor after Typhoon Paka devastated the harbor and the island.
Great crew, great mentors
Bolivar has received numerous medals, awards and commendations, including the prestigious CNO Pacific Fleet Finalist for the Vice Admiral James Stockdale Leadership Award.
She has a couple of favorite awards but the one she really holds close to her heart is a letter of appreciation from a commanding officer when she was a young message center officer at the US Naval Communications Station in San Miguel.
“It was neat to be able to have somebody so senior to say thank you for doing what you did. I think that letter of appreciation was cool. It was not so much about the award, it is the fact that somebody very senior took the time to say thank you, and it made a huge impact on me as a young sailor. I remember it very well so whenever I can, whether it is through an award or an email, I take time to say thank you to my team members. It only takes two seconds to write a note. It meant a lot to me, so I think that it will mean a lot to them too,” Bolivar said.
What Bolivar lacks in size she makes up for with boundless energy and an immense but humble heart. She refuses to take credit for her success and always cites her team in all accomplishments. While she may be at the helm, it is the team that runs the ship.
“To get to a position like this you have to work hard, and I do, but I attribute my current status not so much to myself but more to the folks who I worked alongside with. I have been blessed in all my assignments, whether I was a member of the unit, a ship or in command, I always had great people to assist me, and I had great mentors,” she said.
If handling explosives and salvaging vessels in the deep ocean constitutes fun for Bolivar, it is interesting to know what frightens her.
“I am not afraid of anything like handling explosives or diving. My biggest fear is probably a failure. I am afraid to let the team down, I do not want to disappoint the community. I do not want to disappoint my bosses and my parents,” she said.
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