How does a graduate of St. Mary’s Episcopal High School in Memphis and a Tri-Delt from Vanderbilt University end up as a vice admiral and deputy commander of United States Fleet Forces Command? The story of Vice Admiral Nora Tyson’s ascent to the top of her class is remarkable in so many ways, and her service to our country is exemplary.
Upon graduating from Vanderbilt University, she received her commission from Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I. She earned her wings as a naval flight officer in 1983 and served three tours at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland, and Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, including one as commanding officer.
Vice Admiral Tyson has commanded numerous operations, like the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan, leading the Navy’s contributions to disaster relief efforts on the U.S. Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and deployed twice to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Most recently, she commanded Carrier Strike Group Two, where she led the USS George H.W. Bush Strike Group on its maiden deployment. Her shore tours include service on the Joint Staff as a political-military planner in the Asia-Pacific Division of the Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate; as executive assistant for the assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; as director of staff for Commander, Naval Forces Europe/Commander, 6th Fleet; as executive assistant for the chief of naval operations; and as vice director, Joint Staff.
Tyson is currently deputy commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, which is based in Norfolk, VA.
After attending Vanderbilt University, you earned your wings in the Navy in 1983. What attracted you to a career in the Navy?
In all honesty, I hadn’t considered it until I got a call from the Navy recruiter a few weeks after Vanderbilt graduation. He said, “Hey, I got your name and number, why don’t you come down and talk to us?” I had taken the LSATs and thought I was going to go to law school, but thought: “What the heck? What have I got to lose? If I don’t, I’ll always wonder what would have happened if I had.” I have no regrets. It has been an incredible experience.
What advice can you give to women who are considering a career in the military?
If you are the least bit interested in serving your country in the military, go for it! You will not experience more camaraderie, more teamwork and more dedication to something bigger than yourself in any other profession. I have yet to find anyone who has served in the military for any amount of time who has regretted it. In my opinion, there is nothing more rewarding than service to your fellow man. Additionally, during my career in the United States Navy, I have been places I would have never dreamed of, met people I would have never imagined meeting and done things I could never have imagined doing when I was growing up. There is an unlimited amount of opportunity, and all the while you are doing something much bigger than yourself — serving our great nation and doing your part in trying to make the world a better place for our children and our children’s children.
Is there a common misconception that the average person has about serving in the military?
Maybe. When I told my best friend from Vanderbilt that I was joining the Navy, she cried like I was going to prison.
Your promotion to vice admiral deputy commander of the U.S. Fleet Forces in the Navy is an inspiration to women everywhere. What qualities do you possess that make you an effective leader in the Navy?
I guess I would have to say treating people the way they would want to be treated, the way you would want to be treated if you were in their shoes. We all know that our mission comes first, and that we must all be prepared to do our job to the best of our ability, but it is all about the team and respect for each other.
Does wearing a uniform liberate you or frustrate you?
Interesting question. I’ve never been asked that before. I’d have to say it liberates me. I am very proud to wear the cloth of our nation — most of our uniforms are steeped in the tradition and history of the U.S. Navy and the naval service. I am honored to be a part of that tradition and to wear the uniform that many of our nation’s heroes throughout history have worn. And I don’t have to think too long about what to wear when I get up in the morning.
Did you have an early mentor? If so, what is a valuable piece of advice did they offer you?
I’m not sure if I would call them mentors, but when I was an ensign and serving in my first job in the Navy, I worked for two aviators who told me I had to apply for flight school or I wouldn’t stay in the Navy. I followed their advice and have never looked back. I applied, was accepted, went to flight school in Pensacola and, ultimately, became a naval flight officer. (Not a pilot, because I was told I had 20/25 vision and couldn’t be a pilot.) We NFOs are the navigators, weapons officers and mission specialists who fly in the backseats. Because of that advice early on, I’ve had the opportunity to command a aircraft squadron of about 400 people, an amphibious assault ship of about 3,100 sailors and marines and a carrier strike group comprised of an aircraft carrier, a carrier airwing (about 70 aircraft), 12 other ships and about 10,000 sailors. Whoever would have thought this little girl from Tennessee would have the opportunity and the honor to do all those things? It has been an incredible life!
What books are on your bedside table?
The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett. Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, by Geoff Dyer. Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan.
Tell us one thing that people might be surprised to learn about you.
Some people in the Navy are surprised I didn’t go to the Naval Academy or that I didn’t plan on being in the Navy my entire life. I just sort of fell into it after graduating from Vanderbilt. They are also surprised I was a Tri-Delt at Vanderbilt.
I met a woman at a football game at Old Dominion University. It was Military Appreciation Day, and I was in my dress blue uniform. She and I had a lovely conversation, and after awhile she said, “Why, you know, you are a normal person!” For whatever reason, I think that surprised her.
Who are women you admire, and why?
Barbara Bush. When I was the commander of the USS George H.W. Bush Strike Group, I had the opportunity to spend a little time with the Bushes. They are wonderful, caring people who believe in service to our nation, to the generations coming behind us and to making the world a better place. And they believe in service to each other. It is inspiring.
Ambassador Patricia Herbold. She was the ambassador to Singapore while we were serving there. She is a beautiful person who overcame adversity while growing up to become a very gracious, giving, intelligent and successful businesswoman, diplomat, mother, grandmother, wife and friend. She is a wonderful role model.
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Freedom. That’s why I do what I do, to preserve the freedom that our forefathers fought so bravely for — so future generations can enjoy the freedom that we have enjoyed in our lifetime. We live in the greatest nation on earth. Don’t ever forget that.
Air? Water? I can’t really think of anything else I couldn’t live without. I prefer living with my soulmate, best friend and golfing partner — my husband, Wayne.
StyleBlueprint would like to thank Commander John Gay, United States Navy, and Wayne Tyson for their assistance with photography and the interview.