Growing up in a Navy family with three sisters, Barbette Lowndes knew she’d have to pay her own way through college, so she applied to the Naval Academy. “It was the first year women could apply to the service academies,” she recalled. “I had no idea how historic that was or what I was getting myself into. I’d never left California. My father was an enlisted man for 24 years and my mom had served in the Navy for three years. I had no idea what an officer was. To me, going to the Naval Academy was simply my only option for getting a college degree.”
Two weeks after graduating from high school in 1976, Lowndes boarded a plane to Annapolis. “Everyone was watching because we were the first female class. If anyone saw a female Midshipman, you knew she was a plebe, and you knew what privileges she was allowed or what rules limited her activity.” Adjustment to Academy life was steep for Lowndes and the other 80 women who started with her. “Women didn’t even play a lot of sports in 1976. I took PE in high school, but it was badminton or archery or modern dance, so the physical fitness required at the Academy was very tough.” Of those who entered with her class, 55 women graduated, and 17 went on to a 20-year career in the Navy. Nine of those remained in the Navy after 20 years and made Captain—including Lowndes—and one made Admiral. More than half of the women from that graduating class still get together every year.
“When we entered the Academy, women couldn’t fly Navy planes or serve on Navy ships,” Lowndes explained. “The law was changed in February before we graduated. Women still couldn’t be assigned to combatant vessels or planes, but we could serve on transport or auxiliary ships. Since then more career opportunities have opened up to women. The Academy is now 25% women, compared to about two percent when I was there. Men and women are appreciative of what the first class of female Midshipmen had to do to pave the way.”
Lowndes was commissioned a Supply Corps officer. She had two sea tours for a total of five and a half years assigned to ship’s company and qualified as the Officer of the Deck underway. She served 27 years on active duty including a command tour in Boston, MA. Lowndes married another naval officer, whom she met while stationed in Bermuda. When she retired from the Navy, she was employed as a civilian with the Space and Naval Systems Command. She retired from her civilian career last fall and plans to volunteer, especially with the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society.
“Throughout my naval career I referred junior sailors to NMCRS. I never had to use the Society’s services, but I knew it was always there for the servicemen and women who worked for me,” Lowndes said. “When I was a Captain I volunteered to lead the Secretary of the Navy’s Active Duty Fund Drive to benefit the NMCRS for my command. I knew someone from my command would be the overall San Diego coordinator the following year, so I took that first year to really learn about the fund drive. I found out that Captain Barry White had been appointed to coordinate the San Diego area fund drive the following year, so I trained him as the year progressed. White, now retired, is the director of the NMCRS San Diego office. Just before I retired from the Navy, I began volunteering with the Society and trained to become a Budget for Baby workshop instructor. I’ve conducted those workshops for about 10 years, and now that I’m fully retired, I’m teaching more classes and doing more of the workshop coordination.”
“I think it’s very important for our young service members—officers and enlisted—to really understand basic budgeting and to be financially prepared for their growing families. The military is a high-pressure life. To be financially stable when you’re expecting a baby takes some of the pressure away, and that’s important. If I can make a difference in someone’s life, which means a lot to me.”
“Because I can appreciate growing up with an enlisted dad and not a lot of money, I understand and appreciate servicemen and women who don’t make a lot of money,” Lowndes said. “An E3 or E5 with a family doesn’t make a lot. That’s always influenced me. I’ve always found ways to give back and make things easier for junior service members.”
“I’m just so impressed by the services offered by NMCRS,” Lowndes reflected. “The Society gets by on a shoestring budget because we put the service member first. That’s why I’ve volunteered with the Society all these years.”