Capt. Margaret Klein: USNA’s First Female Commandant
When Capt. Margaret D. “Peg” Klein entered the United States Naval Academy as a plebe in 1977, the institution had only started accepting women the year before and career opportunities in the service for them were at a minimum. The Navy has changed
considerably since then and there are few better examples of this change than Capt. Klein, the academy’s first female commandant and its second highest-ranking officer.
Despite the years of dedication and hard work that it took to get her to that rank, no one is more surprised by this achievement than the 82 nd commandant herself.
“I never dreamed I’d be in this position,” says Capt. Klein, whose job is similar to that of a college dean of students. “Just to be interviewed was an honor in itself, so to be selected was amazing.”
Her surprise has nothing to do with the fact that she is the first woman to hold the position. With refreshing frankness, Capt. Klein says the historical significance of her appointment did not occur to her until her phone started ringing off the hook the day after she accepted the post.
“In the Navy, you are always aspiring to positions of greater responsibility and that’s what this was,” she says. “I just didn’t think about it until I was out on the (Navy aircraft carrier USS Dwight D.) Eisenhower and the media began to call. It was then that I realized… this ought to be interesting.”
Capt. Klein gave the media what it wanted by holding a rare press conference at the academy and then quickly went about following her dream of helping the academy’s midshipmen gain the necessary skills to defend their country in a manner they would be proud of.
“I want to make sure that when the midshipmen graduate, they are ready to serve as ensigns and second lieutenants,” she says. “I want them to be ready to make a difference. And I want people to notice a difference between an academy grad and everyone else.”
Academy superintendent, Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, says Capt. Klein rose above the other candidates because WHY.
Although the superintendent has a reputation as a leader in advancing the role of women in the military, the fact that Capt. Klein is a woman neither helped nor hurt her chances of getting the job.
Capt. Klein’s indifference to her gender and her ability to be a wife, mother of two and a successful Naval officer seem to stem from the way she was raised in Weymouth, Mass., the eldest of four daughters whose father was a reservist in both the Army and Navy and whose mother was a headstrong homemaker.
“My mother kept everything together,” she says. “She taught us never to accept mediocrity.”
Her father, a professor of aviation science and a private pilot, brought her flying when he went up. Though poor eyesight kept her from becoming a pilot, one flying lesson was enough for her to know she wanted to be around planes as much as possible.
“I knew I wanted to be in the air,” she says.
In addition to having five women in a six-member family, Capt. Klein’s extended family included her Godparents, who had five daughters.
“There were 11 women and two men, so there was no such thing as a stereotype,” she says. “We grew up sharing all of the responsibility. I had to mow the lawn, but I also got to go flying with my father.”
From early on, Capt. Klein wanted either to fly planes or be an oceanographer.
“I went to see a Navy recruiter who told me my best career opportunity in the Navy was as a nurse,” she remembers. “When we left the office, my father said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll figure something out.’”
Since the military academies at the time of her high school graduation were not accepting women, she decided to join her college ROTC program.
The following year, her father, a Blue and Gold Officer (a group that helps identify potential midshipmen) for the Naval Academy, informed her that the academies were now accepting women.
“I applied to both the Naval Academy and West Point and was accepted to both,” she says. “However, I knew there were better opportunities to fly planes and work as an oceanographer at the Naval Academy.”
Unfortunately, just as she was about to see her dream come true, an injury during her ROTC training resulted in her failing the entrance physical. But the Naval Academy Foundation saw something special in Capt. Klein and told her that if she applied to the academy again the following year, the association would pay part of the tuition for her sophomore year of college.
“Seemed like a no-brainer to me,” she says. “I needed a little extra time to heal and develop as a student. Plus, if I graduated from the academy, I was guaranteed a commission into the military.”
Despite her enthusiasm and ROTC experience, the academy was an intense introduction to the military world.
“It was not what I expected,” she says. “I was shocked, as most plebes are. But once I committed myself to the academy, I was not looking back. I decided to knuckle down and get it done.”
The sheer desire to survive surpassed the fact that she was one of only a few female midshipmen at the academy.
“Because there is so much focus on camaraderie, the fact that I was now a minority didn’t come into play much,” she says. “We were all trying to pull together to make it.”
Commissioned in 1981, Capt. Klein followed her dream of flying and became a naval flight officer (NFO), which she says in civilian terms is like the character of Goose in the movie,
“Top Gun.” A year later, she married Frank Klein, a fellow academy graduate she met the day before his graduation. He retired from the Navy as a commander and they have two children, a son in college and a daughter in high school.
“We decided that we would both stay in the Navy as long as we could be stationed in the same place,” she says. “When we couldn’t, my husband, who had earned enough years to retire, volunteered to leave the Navy. The smartest decision I ever made was marrying my husband.”
As an NFO, Capt. Klein served on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk’s battle group staff during engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. She was one of the first women in air reconnaissance and went on to lead an air-reconnaissance squadron and wing on the Eisenhower.
“I was ecstatic when I got orders to go to the carrier,” she says. “I never dreamed I’d go on to become second in charge at the academy.”
The Navy has provided the commandant with so many opportunities that, despite appearing as if she has lived her life according to some grand plan, Capt. Klein says she has no idea what she would like to be doing 10 years from now.
“The Navy has had so much to offer that I never even imagined,” she says. “I just hope to be healthy, kicking and still contributing to society.”
Her plans for her two-year tour as commandant of the academy are much more certain and more in line with her public persona as a Naval officer who has managed to balance a successful service in the military with being a hands-on mother and the wife of another career Naval officer.
“I hope that I can be as good as the really good role models I remember,” she says. “I remember them making such a difference.”