EAST CHINA SEA
Born in Bangkok, Thailand and raised in Manila, Philippines, USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) Chief Engineering Officer (CHENG), Lt. Cmdr. Patricia R. Cunanan, came to the United States at 20 years old on a one-way flight with just $75 in her pocket, determined to seek a better and brighter future.
Before Cunanan ever joined the U.S. Navy, she studied civil engineering for three years in Manila and worked three jobs simultaneously for a year in Santa Maria, Calif. On Dec. 18, 1994 she enlisted as a Boiler Technician (BT), beginning a decades-long adventure, as a female pioneer in steam ship engineering plants and setting the ground work for Navy women in her field.
Cunanan’s career started where all newly enlisted Sailors do, Basic Military Training or “boot camp”, followed by BT “A” school. Due to the repeal of 10 USC § 6015 on Nov. 1993, which barred women from serving aboard combatant ships, Cunanan was among the first ever female firemen to go to sea, reporting immediately after graduating from “A” school to USS Cimarron (AO 177), a steam ship homeported in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in the summer of 1995.
Beginning her Navy career as a snipe, a term used to describe sailors that work below the waterline, she was assigned to the fireroom as the only female BT on Cimarron. She quickly developed her interest in the uniqueness of boilers, gears and gauges. Cunanan thrived despite being one of very few females onboard, and she never perceived barriers or boundaries due to her gender, nor did she perceive that one day she would make history.
“I remember when I got to my first ship,” said Cunanan. “I was determined to prove that I was capable of doing the same job as the male BTs.”
While Cunanan’s peers were enjoying their time off, she would spend her time working on qualifications and reading various ship technical manuals. She dedicated her time to better her craft, applying what she learned by volunteering to fix any out-of-commission equipment.
“I never shied away from hard work,” said Cunanan. “I qualified as fireroom supervisor and Boiler Technician of the Watch (BTOW) as a third class petty officer. A watch normally stood by a BT1, earning the respect of my peers and supervisors through initiative.”
Cunanan’s journey led her to the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), homeported in San Diego, where she met Capt. Michelle Howard, who would become the highest ranking African-American and woman in Navy history, a woman who greatly inspired her to be who she is today. To Cunanan she was a female leader who truly cared about all her Sailors on the deck plates.
Through her unwavering dedication to her craft and devotion to her shipmates, Cunanan was advanced in rank and accepted into the Chief’s Mess in 2007. Her original dream was to become the first female Master Chief Boiler Technician, but was encouraged by her former mentor, the CHENG of Bonhomme Richard, to submit an officer package.
As fate would have it, Cunanan was selected for the Limited Duty Officer program while pregnant with her only daughter. Three years after becoming a Chief Petty Officer (CPO), on April 1, 2010, the CPO’s birthday, she became a mustang as a prior Enlisted Commissioned Officer. And her daughter, once born, joined her husband as her main source of motivation.
“All I ever wanted was to make them proud and give them a better life,” she said, adding that she hopes her daughter remembers her in the future as a woman who takes care of people and is well respected, just as her engineering department looks up to her and fondly calls her “Mama Cheng.”
Asked what advice she would give her younger self: “Read more books, workout and wear hearing protection,” she laughed.
Now sailing aboard the U.S. Navy’s oldest operational warship and one of its last remaining steamships, Cunanan felt honored to lead the engineering plant as the first female chief engineering officer in the long history of the ship. She hasn’t only followed a less common path, but she has achieved a unique milestone that very few women would dare attempt.
“It was a great honor to lead the charge and promote equality.” said Cunanan. "I have been in the Navy long enough to have witnessed the rise of female numbers in our fleet… Just as in the corporate world, we lack women in the engineering and scientific communities and we require more diversity as a whole.”
Conveying her admiration and support for women who continue to break boundaries and lay the groundwork for female junior Sailors to emulate, she said “I remember being in the same place in this stressful environment. By being positive you can make it through any storm or bad weather in life. Instead of thinking ‘This sucks or I hate the U.S. Navy’ you should think ‘What can I do to make it better. What can I do to make life better for my shipmates as well?’”
In recognition of Women’s History Month and the triumph of female accomplishment in the fleet, Cunanan advised female junior Sailors to “never quit. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do the same job as a man… In some applications where you need to lift something or turn a wrench. Be smarter than the weight. Qualify as a rigger and hit the gym. Use your creativity as a woman to show that you can also do challenging things and it will build ‘esprit de corps’ and men will notice too. Work as hard as you can every day and study. Just as you wouldn't drink soda and candy at every meal, don't fill your mind with the non-sense of social media all day, read books instead. Surround yourself with good people and be driven to be the best and help all of your shipmates.”
As Cunanan’s time onboard Blue Ridge comes to an end, she had these words to say looking back on her years in the Navy, “never take any opportunity for granted, if given the chance to make a shipmates life better, do it.”
Blue Ridge is the oldest operational ship in the Navy, and as 7th Fleet command ship, is responsible for patrolling and fostering relationships within the Indo-Asia Pacific Region.