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NEWS | March 30, 2023

Women's History Month: Meet Lt. Cmdr. Amber Cowan, USS Kentucky (SSBN 737), the first female executive officer of a U.S. Navy submarine

By Ben Hutto, PSNS & IMF Public Affairs

Employees of Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility had the distinct honor of meeting the first female executive officer of a U.S. naval submarine during the Puget Women's Employee Networking Group (PWENG) monthly meeting March 16, 2023, as part of their Women’s History Month celebration.

Lt. Cmdr. Amber Cowan, executive officer of the Gold crew of USS Kentucky (SSBN 737) spoke about the experiences which lead her to her naval career, the importance of championing diversity, and answered questions from the audience.

Despite having two grandfathers who served in the Air Force, Cowan felt the Navy was the correct service for her.

“I felt like the Navy was the perfect blend of technology and people,” she said. “The Army seemed more people-centric. The Air Force was more focused on technology. For me, the Navy was the best mix of both.”

Cowan attended the University of Washington on a Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship and commissioned as a Navy officer after graduation. Her initial plan was to become a Navy helicopter pilot, but when the ability to serve on submarines opened up for female Sailors in 2010, Cowan’s path became clear.

During her time at the sailing program in college, all of her coaches were retired submarine captains.

“I got along with them fabulously,” she said. “I connected with their sarcasm and sense of humor... they became my mentors.”

Those mentors and her closest friends in the Navy, who were serving aboard submarines, helped Cowan decide her future career in the Navy. It is a decision that she is glad she made.

“Serving with approximately 165 individuals is a unique experience,” she said. “Everyone has a job that is necessary. A submarine is a perfect example of commissioned officers and enlisted working together seamlessly. It isn’t the only place you see it in the service, but I think it’s highlighted on a submarine. That cooperation, that teamwork is what keeps me coming back. I love it.”

That isn’t to say that Cowan has not had challenges in her career. During her talk, she spoke about being one of three females on her first ship. She said she immediately felt external pressure to compete with them.

“I pushed against that,” she said. “It wasn’t about me competing against her. It was about us working together to get qualified. I tried to fit in by suppressing who I was…I kept that inside. We just wanted to be one of the guys; for lack of a better term.”

Ten years later, Cowan is more confident. She understands that “just being one of the guys” isn’t what she wants for her career and her shipmates.

“If you are just one of the guys, they are less apt to listen to you when you bring up issues as a woman,” she said. “I never encountered active resistance, but I did feel like many times I wasn’t being listened to. I had to learn how to balance being a woman and an officer. I feel one is just as important as the other.”

That importance is why Cowan takes time to speak at events like the one held at PSNS & IMF.

Of the ten women she joined the submarine officer corps with, only two are still serving.

“That’s one of the main things I would change,” she said. “I understand being the first female XO of a Navy submarine is important. I accept that, but I wish I had more females serving with me.”

With that in mind, Cowan is moving forward with her career and championing diversity in her command.

“I think any time you insert diversity into a group, you have a better chance of getting a better product in the end,” she said. “I feel that’s because of the diversity of thought. My background is very different from the men I work with…but I think that brings different processes that help you work through and find the best answers.”

Jennifer Farley, PWENG chairwoman, invited Cowan to speak at the event.

“I am so thankful that Lt. Cmdr. Cowan took the time to speak with our group,” she said. “I am also thankful for the diverse audience that acknowledged the importance of what she had to say and for their willingness to engage her with their questions. She is so obviously an intelligent woman, one who recognizes the need for women to be included when decisions are being made.”