When Cos Cob native Cynthia Thebaud graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1985, she figured she'd do the 60 months she owed the service and get on with her life. Boy, was she wrong. During her 25-plus-year career, Thebaud has earned the rank of Rear Admiral and was the second woman ever to command a guided-missile destroyer, USS Decatur (DDG 73). That assignment, which was back in 2002, took her to the Middle East in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
Greenwich Citizen asked Thebaud, who will head in August to the Western Pacific as Commander of Logistics Group Western Pacific, about her rise through the ranks in the Navy.
Q: What were the earliest influences growing up in Greenwich that set you on your path to a career in the Navy? Is there naval service in your family?
A: The biggest influence in my decision to attend the Naval Academy and take a stab at serving in the Navy was my sailing background and affinity for pretty much all things maritime-related. When I was in high school, I knew I would go to college somewhere -- somewhere with rigorous academics and where I would get a good education, but really didn't know what major or career field I wanted to pursue, other than perhaps something related to the water. I had the opportunity to sail in a high school regatta at the Naval Academy when I was in 10th grade, and later met the off-shore sailing coach the summer going into my senior year of high school. He convinced me I should consider applying. When a nomination came through, I had to decide between there and Brown University. Let's just say that Navy sailing was one of the key factors in the decision!
As for naval service in my family, my grandfather had a distant cousin who served in the Navy and retired as a Rear Admiral. I met him once or twice, but he certainly didn't factor into my decision. Both my grandfathers served in the military for a bit; one in the Army, the other in the Army Air Corps in WWI. My parents' brothers both served as well, again; one in the Army in the '60s and '70s, the other in the Army Air Corps in WWII. And my father served in the Air Force for a couple of years following college. But, none of that really factored into my decision, either. The Naval Academy and the Navy was really something I came up with on my own.
Q: Did you imagine the possibility you might achieve such high rank?
A: Heck, I figured I was lucky to simply make it through the Naval Academy! Once I graduated, I figured I'd probably serve my requisite five years and get out. But, the Navy kept offering interesting jobs with increased responsibility, so I continued to move forward. When I got promoted to Captain in 2006, though, I really figured that would be my last promotion. I'm incredibly honored to have been selected to remain beyond that and serve as an Admiral.
Q: What has been the biggest hurdle to achieving your high rank?
A: My biggest hurdle is pretty similar to everyone else's -- the competitiveness of getting selected for Flag rank. Hard work, perseverance, and good people to work with have all served me well. Something like this is definitely not something you achieve solo; I have been very lucky to have had terrific colleagues and crew members wherever I've served, and bosses who have been willing to recognize our commands' accomplishments.
Q: Can you give a couple of brief examples of top moments in your career?
A: One of the high points was command of USS DECATUR (DDG 73). What an incredible honor for the Navy to give you responsibility of a ship like that and its crew of (at the time) about 320 people. I would go to work every day so motivated by the incredible talent of the sailors who served on my ship -- the "sons and daughters of America."
Another particular high point was leading two of the multinational "Africa Partnership Station" (APS) deployments when I was a Destroyer Squadron Commodore. The focus of APS at that time was to help build maritime security capacity in West and Central Africa and the Gulf of Guinea. (It subsequently expanded to other parts of Africa.) We had European, African and Brazilian navies on our staff, and worked with more than a dozen West African countries. During one of the two deployments, we spent a month in Haiti assisting with the earthquake relief efforts. Seeing the international APS team pull together in that effort, and the assistance they rendered, was phenomenal.
Q: What are your present responsibilities?
A: I currently serve as the Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the Naval Education and Training Command (NETC). In that capacity, I oversee the operation of our Navy training facilities that focus on people's individual skill-set training, with a focus on production management. I work to align training initiatives and professional development of sailors, supporting the education and training mission of enabling the Navy to be ready anytime, anywhere, with the objective of getting the right sailor to the right job with the right skill set.
I'm scheduled to transfer to a new job in August. My new assignment will be as Commander of Logistics Group Western Pacific. In that job, I'll oversee all the logistics and maintenance support for our ships deployed in the Pacific from the International Date Line all the way to the Indian Ocean, both North and South Pacific. Additionally, the command coordinates and executes the U.S. Navy's bi-lateral exercises with 10 countries in Southeast Asia, as well as the inaugural deployments of the Navy's newest surface commandant ships, the Littoral Combat Ship -- or LCS.
Q: You are the second female to attain the level of Commander of a U.S. Navy Destroyer. Who was the first?
Q: Do you have a family?
A: Yes -- it seems like the entire Navy is my family! In all seriousness, I am married. My husband, Mike Fierro, is a retired Naval Officer. He retired about a year and a half ago, and was also a Surface Warfare officer. He commanded a Spruance-class destroyer, USS KINKAID (DD 965) and also commanded Naval Support Activity Annapolis. He's very supportive of my career, and was incredibly thrilled to see me make Admiral.
Q: In a traditionally male-dominated occupation do you, as a woman, face additional obstacles?
A: While I undoubtedly face additional obstacles as a female in a predominantly male environment, it's never really been something I've focused on. I've always made it a practice to focus on doing my job to the best of my ability, doing the best I can to take care of the people entrusted to my leadership, and being as professional as I can in mission accomplishment and mission focus -- that my objectives are (hopefully!) the same as my male peers: in an operational job, being ready to put ordnance on target if and when called to; and in a staff job, ensuring we are doing everything we can to best support the warfighter or operator who's forward. In the words of our CNO, "Warfighting First, Operate Forward, and Be Ready!"