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North Hills Monthly

Local Woman Becomes Commanding Officer of a Naval Destroyer

Apr 30, 2015 02:41PM ● By Jill Cueni Cohen
When she was a student graduating from Hampton High School in 1991, Alysa Ambrose Mansfield never dreamed that she’d eventually become the commanding officer of a naval destroyer. “I’m really honored to have this position,” said the woman who leads 300 sailors aboard the USS Gravely (DDG 107). Back in the day, Ambrose was an ROTC student who used a military scholarship to pay for college. Now she’s known as Navy Cmdr. Alysa L. Ambrose—a title and position she attained by what she calls “dumb luck.” 

A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, Ambrose, 42, was commissioned through the NROTC program and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and social history. “I signed up for a four-year service payback for the scholarship, and at the end there were continued opportunities and challenges I found interesting,” she said. “Twenty years later, here I am. It’s not that I have a stronger sense of patriotism than others, but I’ve been able to take advantage of great opportunities, and I’ve enjoyed the work I’ve been able to do.”

Her naval career has featured a series of sea tours on ships like USS Peleliu (LHA 5), USS Higgins (DDG 76), USS Spruance (DD 963) and USS Philippine Sea (CG 58). Before taking over as commander in December 2014, Ambrose became executive officer of the Gravely in May of 2013. The ship is named after Vice Admiral Samuel Lee Gravely, Jr., an apt coincidence, considering that Ambrose is one of the first women to successfully break the military’s glass ceiling. 

“Admiral Gravely was the first black admiral in the Navy, so there were a lot of historic firsts in his career,” Ambrose explained, adding that she met his 94-year-old widow during her Change of Command ceremony. “My crew has a sense of responsibility when it comes to maintaining Admiral Gravely’s reputation.”

The most difficult part of Ambrose’s job has nothing to do with being a woman in charge of a lot of men. “My only challenge is being a mother,” she said. 

Married to a former Navy commander, Tom Mansfield, the couple has three young children. “When we are in home port, I go home at night after dinner,” she explained. “Otherwise, the children have a nanny.” Gravely is deployed approximately every 18 months, for six to seven months. 

Commander Ambrose’s personal decorations include the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, five Navy commendation medals, four Navy achievement medals, and various unit, campaign and service medals. Most recently, she was asked to be Hampton High School’s commencement speaker at this year’s graduation. 

Nevertheless, Ambrose is humble about her rise to the top of the Navy’s ranks, and said that she doesn’t think that being a woman in the military has held her back or affected her career in any way. “I’m the first wave of women doing the same duties as men, and less than a dozen of us have kids,” she noted, adding, “I’ve paid my dues. I do the same work as my male counterparts, and I’ve earned my crew’s respect.” 

Currently underway in preparation for its next deployment, the billion-dollar Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer is one of the Navy’s newest ships, and is equipped with all of the latest combat systems capabilities. “We have the ability to carry surface-to-air missiles and Tomahawk cruise missiles, and we can launch torpedoes vertically or over the side,” said Ambrose. “There’s a 5-inch, 62-caliber gun, triple torpedo tubes and a 20-mm sea gun that looks like R2D2 on the back of the ship.

“We blew up a lot of stuff this week, including a couple of remote-operated Jet Ski® targets and a target towed behind a Lear jet—we blew it out of the air,” added Ambrose of recent training exercises for her crew. “It’s not bad work.”