Trailblazing Admiral, Hall of Fame Female Diver Retires After Conquering ‘Fear of the Sea’ 

July 20, 2021 2:28 PM - Updated: July 21, 2021 11:55 AM
Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar and MCPON Russell Smith take a selfie following Bolivar’s retirement ceremony. US Navy Photo

NAVAL BASE CORONADO, Calif., — One of the first female divers in the Navy and one of the first Filipino-Americans to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy retired this weekend after more than 30 years in the service.

For most of her 36-year career, Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar has been a rarity in the Navy: A seasoned, female diver whose path into the Navy followed her father’s but which she made into her own from a life-changing experience in her early formidable years.

“When I was eight years old, I was a near-drowning victim and had to be resuscitated,” she said In an article in the 2016 edition of All Hands featuring Navy female divers. “From then on, I told myself I would conquer both the seas and my fear of the seas by learning more and becoming part of the underwater environment. I took swimming lessons and gradually eased my way back into the water… and eventually earned a degree in oceanography.”

Bolivar received that degree graduating in 1985 from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. In 1989, she became a Navy diving officer and later a special operations officer in the explosive ordnance disposal and diving-and-salvage community, completing deployments and operations supporting and leading diving and salvage missions.

Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar, receives a Baltimore Ravens helmet during her retirement ceremony. US Navy Photo

“During her decades of service, to the Navy and to her country, Bette Bolivar… has made history as a trailblazer and as a highly respected, inspirational leader,” James Webb, former secretary of the Navy and Marine combat veteran, told the audience during her change-of-command and retirement ceremony on Friday.

Bolivar commanded the Safeguard-class rescue and salvage ship USS Salvor (T-ARS-52) from 1998 to 2000, and she was the first woman to command Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 1, which she led from 2003 to 2005. In 2005, she joined a small cadre of Navy female divers when she was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame.

In 2006, she deployed to Afghanistan for a 12-month tour with Task Force Palatin, serving as the officer-in-charge of the Counter Radio-Controlled Improvised Explosive Device Electronic Warfare program supporting the counter-IED Task Force Palatin, according to her biography.

Former Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb speaks at Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar’s retirement on July 16, 2021. US Navy Photo

Like many women of her generation, Bolivar’s career path onto dive-and-salvage ships and into combat zones took hold after the Navy, from the mid-1980s to early 1990s, began opening more billets and assignments that long had been closed to women. While a lieutenant-junior grade, Bolivar was assigned to Webb’s SECNAV staff during a period when he had formed a task force whose work and resulting study led to the opening for women of more non-combat billets across the Navy.

It would be several years before the first women were assigned to combatant ships, with the first group of women joining the crew of the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower (CVN-69) in 1994. “Women now command at sea. They serve in combat. They serve in the air. They serve on the sea. And they serve underneath the sea,” Bolivar said.

Her friendship with Webb grew over the years, and his keynote speech at the ceremony mirrored his presence at several of her previous change-of-command ceremonies. She credits him with supporting her desire for a Navy diving career, something which few women have attained to this day.

“It was his endorsement, on my lateral transfer package to the spec-ops community, which enabled me to be that deep-sea diver I always wanted to be,” Bolivar told the audience. Although petite in stature, her confident spunk and strong support from her family and friends help propel that package into what became a long diving career as the service opened and expanded opportunities for women to serve in operational billets.

She also hailed Webb’s support in the Senate for the post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which he had introduced in his first term. “It’s because of Sen. Webb that I would be able to use my GI Bill to attend the K9 Master Training Academy… for the next chapter of my life,” she said.

Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar, commander, Navy Region Northwest, gets her one-star shoulder boards attached by her father, Ted Cereno Bolivar and sister, Jeni Bolivar-Ventresca, during her promotion ceremony held at COMPACFLT Boathouse on July 16, 2013. US Navy Photo

Bolivar joined Webb’s staff in 1987, a “ball of exuberance, of interest and of energy,” he said. “And as women’s opportunities increased, Bette jumped at the chance, dismissing an easier life and excelling in the Navy’s operational world: Basic diving officers school, special operations officer, commanding a salvage and rescue ship, commanding a mobile diving and salvage unit, and commanding an electronic warfare” team in Afghanistan.

Those, he said, are highlights of “a career dedicated to hands-on leadership, fearless action and tangible results.”

After her selection to rear admiral – another rarity for a diving officer – Bolivar led four of the Navy’s regional commands – Navy Region Northwest, Joint Region Marianas, Navy Region Southest and Navy Region Southwest, the latter which she assumed command in 2019. Each command, she noted, provide critical support to the Navy’s operational units and service members and families at dozens of regional installations.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Torres [left], and Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar, then commander Joint Region Marianas [right], talk to Sgt. D.J. Camacho, a native of Saipan assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, assisting in Typhoon Soudelor relief efforts. Torres and Bolivar took an aerial tour of the island Sunday in an MV-22 Osprey from the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 (Reinforced) on Aug. 9, 2015. US Navy Photo
Webb, a novelist and former U.S. senator who served as Navy secretary from 1987 to 1988, noted Bolivar’s family legacy of military service. In 1953, her father, Ted Cereno Bolivar, enlisted as a steward – coming in through a highly competitive program – and later retired as a chief petty officer. Two brothers also served in the Navy. He praised her leadership and mentoring of her enlisted leaders throughout her career, several who served as side boys during the ceremony sending her off into retirement and return to civilian life.

“My master diver gladiators had a big influence on me,” Bolivar told the crowd.

A fellow 1985 Naval Academy classmate helped send her off into retirement.

Vice Adm. Ricky L. Williamson, the deputy chief of naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics (N4), spoke at the ceremony to fulfill a promise he and Bolivar made back when they were midshipmen to see off the other who was first to leave the Navy.

Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar, center, commander, Joint Region Marianas, gives the all clear signal to Navy Diver 1st Class Bobby Demay, a Sailor assigned to the submarine tender USS Frank Cable (AS-40), following diving operations at Alpha Pier on Polaris Point, Sept. 22, 2015. US Navy Photo

“You have superbly led and mentored numerous sailors,” Williamson told her, recounting her words motivating classmates – among them football players – through exhausting physical training during their midshipmen days nearly 40 years ago.

“You inspired them to get up. You inspired them to achieve things they thought were unachievable but most importantly you inspired them to be better.”

Williamson pinned on a Legion of Merit medal, awarded for her service as Navy Region Southwest’s commander. The award, though, came second in generating the excitement from gifts presented from the chiefs mess and wardroom, including a personalized Baltimore Ravens football helmet and a personal, video message from Ravens’ coach John Harbaugh.

The Chief Petty Officers Mess presented her with a Charge Book. “You have done more to empower the Chiefs Mess and to provide us an opportunity to lead than most any leader I’ve seen in my 33 years,” Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith said, before appointing a beaming Bolivar as “Honorary Chief Petty Officer” and pinning on anchors onto her white dress shirt collar. “Navy chief, Navy pride!” she yelled.

Gidget Fuentes

Gidget Fuentes

Gidget Fuentes is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She has spent more than 20 years reporting extensively on the Marine Corps and the Navy, including West Coast commands and Pacific regional issues.

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