Navy captain breaks glass ceiling as first female boss of Seal Beach base

Navy Capt. Jessica J. O'Brien is the new commanding officer for the Naval Weapons Station in Seal Beach.
Navy Capt. Jessica J. O’Brien is the new commanding officer for the Naval Weapons Station in Seal Beach. O’Brien is the first woman to command the base and previously led a San Diego-based landing craft battalion that trains to move Marines from ships onto adversarial coastlines. She has the important job of overseeing the completion of a new $154-million ammunition pier that will allow larger ships to dock in Seal Beach.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Capt. Jessica O’Brien recently took the helm of Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach, becoming the first female commanding officer in the base’s 78-year history.

With nearly 25 years of service as a naval officer, O’Brien comes to Orange County from the Pentagon, where she worked for three years under the Chief of Naval Operations in cooperating with foreign militaries. She relieved Capt. Jason Sherman at a July 15 ceremony but had been learning the ropes for the past few months.

O’Brien previously broke a glass ceiling as the first female commander of Beachmaster Unit One, a Coronado-based landing craft unit that trains to move sailors, Marines and their equipment from ships onto adversarial coastlines.

Coincidentally, O’Brien entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1993. In 1994, Congress repealed the combat exclusion laws that had prevented women from serving in combat ships and aircraft.

“Throughout my career, I’ve been the first female in so many instances. I’m on that bow wave of females who have really had an open path ahead to serve on combatants. Even since then females can do more. We’ve got females on submarines now and everything is really open,” O’Brien said.

As a woman who entered the male-dominated profession of driving warships, O’Brien said she’s proud to have laid the groundwork for fellow female officers.

“It wasn’t something I wanted to highlight because I never did in my career. I just tried to do my job and earn the trust and respect of everyone,” O’Brien said.

A defining moment in O’Brien’s early career arrived on Oct. 12, 2000, during her first deployment on the dock landing ship USS Anchorage. The warship had pulled into port in the Seychelles, an archipelago off the coast of East Africa. O’Brien was helping paint a schoolhouse when the ship blasted its horn and hoisted a flag signaling all of its crew were recalled from shore.

“We pack up and come running down the hill and get told there was an explosion on a ship in Yemen,” she said.

Navy Capt. Jessica J. O'Brien is the new commanding officer for the Naval Weapons Station in Seal Beach.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The guided missile destroyer USS Cole was bombed in a suicide attack while refueling in Aden, Yemen. The blast killed 17 sailors and injured 39 others. Al-Qaeda terrorists would claim responsibility for the attack.

Anchorage steamed toward Yemen to help the damaged Cole and was the first American ship to arrive, O’Brien said. The amphibious ship’s crew provided security, food, clothing and medical care to the Cole’s sailors. For the then-junior officer, the bombing drove home the real dangers of military service — even on the waves.

“It certainly changed for me the importance of what I was doing and really understanding how much I love this job,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien lands in Seal Beach in a bustling moment for the 5,256-acre base. It’s likely she will see the completion of a $154-million construction project to reconfigure Anaheim Bay and replace a World War II-era ammunition pier by late 2024. In April, construction crews drove the last of over 660 concrete piles that will support a new pier.

For the first time, the planned pier and causeway will be able to accommodate 844-foot-long amphibious assault ships or simultaneously service two guided-missile destroyers. In a first for the base, ships will be able to siphon power from the pier rather than running their own generators, which is expected to free up sailors to handle missiles and cut the service’s fuel usage.

Every ship based in San Diego comes to San Diego to load and offload missiles between missions. The next closest ammunition depot is over 1,000 miles away in Washington state.

“It’s no secret that we’re still in a great power competition with China and with the pivot to the Pacific this is strategically significant to the Pacific Fleet and being able to increase the capacity here is important to the Navy,” O’Brien said.

The civilian boat channel to Huntington Harbour has already been reconfigured to end the practice of vessels passing through Navy’s inner harbor. This dramatically shortened the time pleasure craft must wait while warships maneuver around the ammunition pier.

In a separate project, the Navy is conducting an environmental study for future uses on 28.89 acres of largely vacant federal land at the northeast corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Seal Beach Boulevard. Affordable housing for military families or civilians would help Seal Beach meet a state mandate to plan for the region’s housing needs.

O’Brien said she’s grateful for the opportunity to be one of 70 sailors in charge of U.S. naval bases.

“It’s not the ship driving and all of the excitement being out at sea that kept me in the Navy. It’s the culture, it’s that camaraderie and that’s throughout the Navy,” she said. “Here I get to build that with this team and outside of our fence line in the community.”

Daniel Langhorne is a contributor to TimesOC.

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