CTOCM(AW) PENNY M. TARDONA
UNITED STATES NAVY, RETIRED
Master Chief Tardona (Retired) enlisted in the Navy on 16 January 1976 as a CTO Seaman Recruit. She attended Recruit Training in Orlando and CTO “A” school in Pensacola. In the Mid 70’s and well into the 80’s Sea Duty was not an option for females, so Master Chief Tardona experienced her first duty at the Naval Security Group Activity (NSGA) Sabana Seca, Puerto Rico. She followed that tour with a return to Pensacola for HFDF Technical Control “C” School.
Her next assignment took her to NSGA Keflavik Iceland, a place she describes as “The Landscape similar to that of the surface of the moon”. In 1980, while stationed at NSGA Keflavik, Master Chief Tardona was selected to participate in the Enlisted Education Advancement Program (EEAP). She transferred to the Chief of Naval Education and Training (CNET) Command, Pensacola where she attended Pensacola Junior College.
Upon completing her two-year program in 12 months, Master Chief Tardona was selected as an instructor in the COMSYSOPSCOM “C” SCHOOL at NTTC Corry Station, Pensacola where among other things she earned her Master Training Specialist.
Her next assignment was to a tiny little island in the Indian Ocean called Diego Garcia at the Naval Security Group Detachment. While onboard Diego Garcia, she was promoted to Chief Petty Officer, Her initiation “Season” was unique as she was the only female going through the initiation process of her day, with a base full of Sea Bee Chiefs, an experience to say the least. After donning her Anchors on September 16, 1985, she was assigned the duties of Communications Division Officer.
The Master Chief’s next assignment was to NSGA Northwest, Virginia. She functioned as a Chief Watch Officer (CWO) for approximately 18 months and then assumed the Communication Department Chief position. While onboard Northwest, Master Chief Tardona pursued and was rewarded with her first opportunity to spend time onboard a ship. Her TDY, albeit short, onboard the USS IOWA (BB-61) was the highlight of her tour at NSGA Northwest.
Upon completion of her tour at Northwest, Master Chief Tardona transferred to a Division Officer position at NAVFAK ADAK. It was here in Adak that the Master Chief was selected for Senior Chief. It was also during this time that the Master Chief had the opportunity to fill in as the Command Master Chief on a regular basis, experiencing all that it takes to be a Command Master Chief. One of the Master Chiefs’ goals was accomplished while in Adak by completing her Bachelor of Science degree. She participated in and was awarded her Aviation Warfare designation from NAS Adak’s AIMD. Prior to departing from Adak, the Master Chief was selected for the Senior Enlisted Academy.
Subsequently, in 1991, the Master Chief was selected for duty on the staff, Commander, Naval Security Group Command Headquarters (CNSGHQ) where she served as the CTO Training Manager. It was during this tour in August of 1992 at a Chief Select Luncheon where “Green” Spaghetti was the Entrée of the day, that she met her husband, Lou Tardona. It was also here where she was selected for Master Chief in 1993.
Master Chief Tardona’s next tour was as the CTO Branch Technical Advisor at BUPERS where she provided Technical Assistance to the Enlisted Community Manager. It was during this tour in April of 1995 that she was selected to become the 8th Force Master Chief of Naval Security Group Command. She went from assisting in the management of a community of 2000 plus CTO’s to be the Admirals’ Senior Enlisted Leader of over 13,000 Cryptologic Technicians and Electronic Warfare Specialists. She retired in 1998.
Master Chief Tardonas’ decorations included the Meritorious Service Medal, Two Navy Commendation Medals, Three Navy Achievement Medals, a Joint Service Unit Commendation, a Navy Unit Commendation, Two Meritorious Unit Commendations, Five Navy Good Conduct Medals, a National Defense Service Medal, and Five Navy and Marine Corps Overseas Service Ribbons.
Upon completion of her Naval Service, Master Chief Tardona worked for various DoD contractors until starting her own Woman Owned, Disabled Veteran Owned Business, PRL Technologies. PRL Technologies provided Language and Culture Training for Sailors deploying to the Middle East. The Master Chief completely retired in 2019 but continues to be actively involved in the Chief community as a Mentor. She currently resides in Dade City, Florida with her husband and four legged baby, Madeline Petunia Picklebutt, better known as Maddie.
No one told me I could.
I grew up the oldest of seven children. Born in Seattle in 1951 to parents just out of High School. My Dad joined the Navy because the Judge said “Go to Jail, or join the Military”. Apparently a lot of young men joined the Military in the 50’s and 60’s after being given the same choices. My Dad was not a “book smart” man but he was good with his hands. He was a Deck Seaman on the USS Los Angeles during the Korean War. My Mom and I lived in a Quonset Hut in Long Beach California while Dad was deployed. I’m not sure how we survived during those times, Dad never made it past Seaman. Seems that he enjoyed drinking and fighting more than learning a skill. He did the minimum required and then got out of the Navy.
Growing up, money was always tight in our fast growing family. Dad worked for Edison for many years selling office machines. In those times, women stayed home and raised children and that’s exactly what my Mom did. Out of necessity, she often worked nights at whatever odd jobs she could find. For years she worked as a night janitor at my grade school. She often took me with her so that she could finish quicker. I emptied trash cans and pencil sharpeners while Mom mopped floors. To this day, if I smell pencil shavings it takes me right back there.
I was always a good student. School was an escape from the chaos at home. We would learn years later that my Mom was Bipolar which explained why our childhood was so dysfunctional. I would look forward to school each day if for no other reason than to have structure and quiet time. I know we had guidance counselors at school, but I don’t remember anyone ever talking to me about going to college. No one told me I could do it. Maybe it’s because they knew our family couldn’t afford it. At home it was clear that higher education wasn’t something to strive for. Good grades were nice but not required. Homework was not a priority, at least not for me. As the oldest, my Mom needed my help with the younger children. I eventually graduated with honors but all that got me was a gold cord to wear on my graduation gown. The future I saw for myself was to get married and have children of my own. I “escaped” the chaos three days after I graduated, moving to California to live with my Grandmother.
I was married within a year of graduating, marrying a young man just returning from Viet Nam. The year was 1971. We moved to a very small town in North Carolina where I was expected to be an obedient, quiet wife. I knew deep down in my heart that I wanted more. No one told me I could do it. We separated but I didn’t return to Seattle where my family was, I didn’t want to admit failure. I worked the midnight to eight shifts in a textile mill for about a year. One night while I was working, I thought about joining the Navy. No one told me I could do it. As soon as I got off work, I drove to the closest Recruiting Center. It just so happened they were administering tests that morning, so I sat down and took the test. I scored high enough to be pretty much whatever I wanted from the choices women had back in 1976. My two top choices, Air Traffic Controller and Hospital Corpsman were both unavailable for at least a year. I knew that if I was going to do this, I had to do it right away. BMC Johnson sat me down and told me about what was then known as Communications Technicians. My tests showed that I had a high aptitude for languages so I asked to be a CTI (Linguist). Unfortunately for me, there were no billets for women at that time. I ended up selecting CTO (Communications) even though there was a push to slot me for Mess Management Specialist to meet the needs of the Navy. When I signed all my paperwork, I called my Dad to tell him I had joined the Navy. I was not prepared for his response, he was so angry! He said he wouldn’t tell any of his friends because “Only Dikes and Whores join the Military, and he didn’t want anyone to think I was either one of those!” Off to Boot Camp I went where I would soon learn what it was like being a young woman in the Navy. Soon after I arrived in Boot Camp I received my first of several letters from my Recruiter, BMC Johnson. When I got the first letter I expected it to be full of encouraging words. Instead, it contained lewd comments and requests for pictures of me with little to no clothes on. It kind of set the tone for those early years of my career. I never answered any of those letters but I also never told anyone in my Chain of Command because no one told me I could or should.
At my first duty station I experienced things that I soon learned were not only acceptable but also the norm in most workspaces. I was never addressed by my name or rank, my supervisor addressed me as “Dumb Broad”. I was never made to feel like part of the team, just a second class citizen if you will. My supervisor would drop his pants on midwatches and Xerox his genitals. It took me awhile before I had the courage to say something to my coworkers and when I did, their response was “We don’t want you in our Navy, if you don’t like it, hit the bricks Bitch!”. Females were routinely tied to chairs on Midwatches, especially after field day when we worked in our white t-shirts. The males would throw water on us which ended up looking like wet t-shirt contests.
I learned early on that those who complain are quickly labeled as troublemakers. I just wanted to fly under the radar, do my job and advance in paygrade. I did my best to avoid situations at work that allowed the men to interact in an inappropriate way with me. If you’re wondering why I put up with this behavior, you’re reacting using 2023’s culture, not 1970’s culture. I had to learn to filter out the comments, keep my head down and focus on my goals. I wanted the Navy to be a career, I just wasn’t always sure I would make it to the end. We didn’t have programs in place for Sexual Harassment. In the 1970’s, the Navy was focused on Race Relations and all training/GMT was centered around that. I wanted to complain but no one told me I could.
Quite a few of the men I worked with in the early years made it their mission in life to let me know I was not welcome in “Their Navy”. They were going to make it as uncomfortable as possible for me. At one Duty Station I was the only female on the rotation. When I first showed up for shift I was shown where I would work, a big gray metal desk with a piece of plexiglass on top. Under the plexiglass were dozens of crude “Hustler Magazine” type pictures. When I said something about it I was told to shut up, they had no intention of changing their environment to accommodate me. Several months later I noticed a “Playgirl” magazine in the Navy Exchange. I bought it, cut out all the male genital pictures and added them to the photos under the plexiglass. The next time I came to work ALL the pictures were gone. When I questioned this my supervisor said, “You can’t expect the guys to sit at that desk and do their work with “those” pictures on the desk!
I’d like to think that I had a successful career in spite of the obstacles. I could share so many other examples of things I experienced but I don’t want this to be entirely negative. I accomplished things that no one told me I could! I see women doing jobs in todays’ Navy that I could never have imagined. As I mentored young women through the years I made it my mission to tell them they could be anything they wanted to be. You would be hard pressed to find jobs in the Navy that females didn’t come in and KICK ASS! We don’t want special treatment; we just want to be treated the same. If we can meet the qualifications, let us do it. Don’t lower the standards in order to include us! We want to know we made it on our own merits, not because a quota needed to be filled. Most of the women of my generation in the Navy have always had that little nagging voice in our heads, asking ourselves did we deserve this job/promotion/accolade or did we get it because it was “time” for a woman to be represented. When I was selected as the first female Force Master Chief of Naval Security Group, it should have been the most rewarding day in my career, instead, my first question to my predecessor was “Was I selected because the Admiral felt it was the perfect time to put a woman in the job?” I’ll never truly know the answer to that question.
In order to see change our society has to start telling young girls they can do or be ANYTHING they set their sights on. It warms my heart to see more and more of that in the media. We’ve come so far; I can’t wait to see what the next generation of women will accomplish!
By the way, later on in my career, my Dad worked as an Electrician on Navy ships in Seattle. Nothing gave him more pleasure than telling the Navy folks he worked with that his daughter was a “Star” Chief! I just wish he had been able to see me wear that second “Star.”
22 March 2023 at 12:55
Thank you for helping to pave the way, Master Chief!
LikeLiked by 1 person
22 March 2023 at 19:29
This old CT from the 1960s always wondered why no women were in the Group. It is now an honor to know the women of our service by the biographical posts here this month of March. Without women participating in every aspect of society in America we are but half of what we should be. What a wonderful career CTOCM Penny M. Tardona experienced. Thanks to you for your career.
22 March 2023 at 21:38
I have always been so proud to have Penny as my sister in law just for the woman she is, but after reading this article. I am overly swelled with pride and love for this woman. . She paved the way for our daughters and granddaughters to serve in the Military proudly..
24 March 2023 at 13:07
I am awed by Master Chief Tardona’s resilience. Thank you for sharing such raw experiences and offering perspective showing how far we’ve come!
26 March 2023 at 00:51
Very informative and impressive career climb to Force Master Chief.
CTO in my💗… CTO1/IC1⚓
26 March 2023 at 15:36
Great personal history. I was a lowly RMSN at the receiver site in 1963-1965. Ship shore operator, cheap bakelite headphones, standard key (speed keys not permitted) taking messages from the fleet using a cheap typewriter. It was not a good duty station. 2nd floor wooden barracks no AC buggy and humid. Took a bus between the site and the barracks. No good memories at all.
3 April 2023 at 02:01
Penny-Mom ALWAYS told me I could. (unles I really shouldn’t) She has a legacy of young women, well we’re in our 60s now, she empowered to realize our potential. Until today, I never heard her mention her experience or that dhe
waited for anyone to tell her “she could”. Because it wasn’t a question or an ethos she entertained. So, as a career sailor CTOCM Force Master Chief, while Badass, exponentially, was my mentor. Penny endured my crazy,
valued my loyalty and created a safe space, nonexistent in the 80s, where I was able to flourish and learn to be okay with who I was/am and be okay with leadership, responsibility, accountability and operate where my concerns and values were never compromised.
That was me attempting to appear articulate.
In my world, Penny has been family. Her professionalism was unquestionable but
a lot of the time we were vulnerable. We often operated in a jungle. Funny thing, at the time those things were irrelevant, we had a mission that required our attention. Looking back, there may be an alphabet worth of trauma, but my Penny-Mom, CTOCM to you, gave so many sailors, not just the ladies, encouragement and a vision of the possible.
And that’s 2 generations of Badass, yet femine, lol, women who are pretty confident about maneuvering through life.
That’s a Legacy!