After a tour of the HMCS Winnipeg, Rachel Mielke and Amber Comisso got together over Zoom to have a chat about Comisso’s most recent mission, her unlikely career path, leadership, diversity in the military, and making it work in a demanding career.
"Women can do whatever they want and I can’t wait to get to a point where that’s not even part of the conversation anymore."
Here’s their conversation:
Rachel: Tell me a little bit about how you got into a career in the Navy.
Amber: Happenstance is probably the best description. I was at a university information night in Thornhill, Ontario and my mom had come along. I went to the first presentation and my mom branched off and when she came back she said, “Amber! You’ve gotta watch this presentation.” She took me to a presentation by the Royal Military College of Canada, and I said, “Mom, this is the Canadian military,” and she was like “I know, right? Isn’t it so great?” I was totally into drama in highschool. I was very artistic. I was almost the antithesis of a military mind. But, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a smart decision. My four years of school would be paid for. I had a guaranteed job afterwards. I didn’t know what I wanted to be and the idea was exciting. I got excited to serve my country and to, as they say, “Join the Navy, see the world.” I think I was the first person from my highschool to go to RMC.
Rachel: Given that you had an arts focus and you were into drama, one might assume you would go in for a few years, experience it, and then do something else. What has kept you with the Navy for 23 years?
Amber: Originally, I thought I’d do my 4 years of school and my five years afterwards and that would be it. I always said I would leave when I was bored, but this work just keeps getting better. I was given an incredible amount of responsibility at a very young age. Out of RMC in 2001 I remember being on the bridge of the ship with over 200 people asleep and my job was to keep everyone safe and sound. That sense of leadership at a young age appealed to me; it’s a very dynamic career—it’s not a desk job at all—and every couple of years you’re basically learning a new job. I went from being on the bridge of the ship, to learning how to control the helicopter that accompanies the ship, to being the captain’s warfare advisor, to being second in command of the whole thing. It’s been an adventure and I’m still having a lot of fun, but what’s kept me here is the leadership opportunities. That, and the travel of course. Pre-pandemic, I was able to see so much of the world. During one job I got to go to 10 different countries in 2 years, which was just amazing.
"You have to have courage. If you’re looking at something and thinking, 'I don’t see it that way at all,' have the courage to put your opinion out there."
Rachel: What does a regular day on the ship look like?
Amber: On operation neon, this last mission, our job was to enforce UN sanctions against North Korea from August to December. I’d wake up around 5 o'clock and have a nice quiet cup of coffee and about an hour to myself. After my coffee I’d go to one of two hotspots on board and try to figure out the pulse of the ship. I’d often go into the operations room and there was one cohort of sailors who’d really let you know how it was going. Then I’d see what everyone was saying in the machinery control room. Then breakfast.
Operation neon was so dynamic. We’d basically get intelligence of where we thought these ships were smuggling oil, and then we’d launch the helicopter and follow ships. My job, as second in command, was to support the captain. So if he hadn’t slept very much throughout the night, he would give me control of the ship in the morning and get his head down while I helped the bridge team execute our intelligence mission. I’d always fit in a workout at around 4pm. I loved to ride the stationary bike on the upper deck because you could glance out at the ocean and see all the fishing traffic on that side of the world. Then it was dinner. After dinner, I’d usually try—somewhat unsuccessfully—to watch the movie we’d screen every night to try to get all the officers together to decompress. Life at sea is long hours. You’re working all the time because you live there. As I’d get ready for bed, the rest of Canada would be waking up and the emails would start coming in so I’d try to answer a few before getting a bit of sleep. That’s life at sea. It’s a lot about food and routine. Normally, the best part of the Navy is port visits. That’s when you get to see the world. On this mission, because of the pandemic, we were confined to the ship and the jetty. So we had to work hard to keep 254 people mission-focussed with enough rest and relaxation.
"My inclination in the beginning was to be silent. Now I realize that my diversity of thought is actually such an asset."
Rachel: The space is, of course, very limited on board. I’m sure you’ve had gender-related obstacles that you’ve had to (or continue to have to) overcome as a woman in the navy. Can you talk to me about those? How did you get through them? Are there any female role models who inspire you or have inspired you?
Amber: When you’re the only woman sitting at the table, you look at things differently. At the beginning of my career, I really hesitated to voice my opinion because it was so different from everyone else’s. The military is predominantly white and male. We’re trying to get beyond that, but that’s what the majority of the numbers are. Everyone around the table would be nodding and I’d be like “Wait a second, I see this totally differently.” My inclination in the beginning was to be silent. Now I realize that my diversity of thought is actually such an asset.
As for role models, there are so many that came before me like Commodore Kurtz. It was just announced that she’s going to command the Royal Military College of Canada. She was a warship captain back when I was just starting out. Mentoring is very important. On the last deployment we had quite a few women on board, and what was encouraging was how inspired women in the junior ranks were to see women in senior positions of leadership and importance. These younger women want to see that it’s possible. That’s why representation is so important. They have to actually meet you and say “Yes, ok, Amber. You’re here.”
Rachel: I think a lot of the women who read our blog are in their 20s and 30s and at that stage where they’re trying to gain confidence in their voice and facing the same challenges you faced. They’re at the table, but they’re not feeling confident enough to speak up when their ideas are different because maybe they don’t look like everyone else sitting around the table. What helped you find the confidence to speak up when you knew that your ideas were so different from what was being said around the table?
Amber: Well it has taken a while because you do feel like you’re wrong or crazy sometimes when you’re in a male-dominated field like the military. I actually had an admiral who said “You know what Amber? Your job is to make sure our meetings have representation.” He recognized that you can’t have an honest conversation unless there are different opinions at the table. To me that was a progressive, brilliant move. It takes effort to make sure your team is diverse, but the benefits are incredible. You have to have courage. If you’re looking at something and thinking, “I don’t see it that way at all,” have the courage to put your opinion out there. When I was at Staff college in Toronto I researched diversity and inclusion, and there is great research that shows that diverse teams often feel uncomfortable and awkward, but they’re proven to produce better results because they’re more interested in consensus.
"I do hope that one day my girls (who are 10 and 6) will be able to look at my career and see that you really can be whoever you want to be."
Rachel: A question I get asked alot is about balance, and you and I both know that there is no such thing as balance. You have to make choices. When you told me you hadn’t seen your family in over a year, I kind of went, “Wow. That’s a real sacrifice.” So my question is, how do you make it work? Not seeing your family for a year is not balance, but how do you make it work?
Amber: I was really lucky that my partner understood what a career milestone it was for me to be appointed as executive officer (second in command) of a warship. I couldn’t have done it without him because he’s been at home by himself with the kids. He understands what I’m trying to do in the navy. When I got the job one of our first conversations was like, “Are you sure you can do this? This leaves you at home with the girls.” And he said, “We’re going to make this work.” A true partnership like that is important. He’s in the military also. He has his own career goals so we’re always trying to balance that. The biggest thing is patience. The kids have been very patient. When I deployed for 4 and a half months, I was very mission-focussed. I would call home when I could, but really I think they understood Mom was on a mission. I think you should fully commit yourself to whatever you’re doing. When I was home—it was only a couple of weeks—I poured myself back into my kids, and my marriage, and our home. You’re right, I really don’t think there is much balance, but I’ve tried to be more deliberate. If I’m on a mission, I’m on a mission. If I’m back at home, I’m back at home.
I do hope that one day my girls (who are 10 and 6) will be able to look at my career and see that you really can be whoever you want to be. As a very short, petite woman in the Navy, I’m not what you think of when you picture a warship captain. That’s part of why I’m doing all of this. I hope they see that.
Rachel: As someone who wears a uniform, to what extent do you consider fashion and accessories part of your identity? What clothes or accessories make you feel most like yourself?
Amber: The uniform is very masculine. So whenever we went into port (pre pandemic) I would always try to dress up, and dress more feminine to feel more like myself. The military used to be very strict when it came to hair being tied back tight. Recently we’ve changed and adapted. It’s important for our younger generations. How they look is really important to who they are. I like seeing that people can wear ponytails with their uniform and have more variety when it comes to earrings and stuff. I’ve got a friend who’s deployed on the HMCS Calgary. She’s the executive officer as well and I saw her in one of their promo videos with her heels on, and I really liked that.
Rachel: If you had to pick a favourite fashion house, designer, or brand, what would it be?
Amber: Oh gosh. Ok, well I do have to say that I think your Sparkle Ball™ earrings are just like...happiness! I actually got a couple pairs for some of the younger naval officers that I mentor because I just love the sparkle, the shine, the brightness. Honestly, my favourite thing to do is go to a place like Marshall’s and hunt. I just love that. If I ever have any free time that’s what I like to do. I love the thrill of the find.
Rachel: There’s a lot of talk about the military wanting to recruit more women. Are there specific skills or talents that women bring to the table that you’ve witnessed?
Amber: Women lead differently. We’re very invested in collaboration and consensus, and we lead with a strong sense of empathy. On deployment I felt like I was Mom to 254 people. That’s how I am. I like to nurture. My leadership style is very nurturing, and I think there’s value in that when a ship sets out in the middle of a pandemic and you’re not quite sure what the world is going to look like. We didn’t really have a lot of answers to give the crew because it was everyone’s first time deploying in that kind of environment. If you look at the median age (of the people on board) they’re young. They’re in their twenties. They’re experiencing life for the first time in their military career so I think you need that compassionate, nurturing aspect that women can naturally bring to the table. Not to say that men don’t or can’t do that. They certainly can. I would just say that my nature was to nurture and mother a little bit. Probably because I’m a mom myself.
"Empowerment to me is to know what you know very deeply."
Rachel: Tell me a little bit about what empowerment means to you?
Amber: Empowerment to me is to know what you know very deeply. It was only recently in my career I’ve been able to settle into myself and come to terms with who I am and how I lead. Empowerment to me is to lead authentically. For a long time I tried to fit that mold of a classic military officer—cold, stoic, unemotional. But I realized that’s not who I am. Embracing my emotional side helped me lead more authentically. Empowerment is knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Knowing “This is how I lead. I’m an empathetic person. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I’m artistic.”
Rachel: You have two daughters. Is life in the Navy or Military something you’d encourage them to do?
Amber: I think the military is great when you’re young. It’s such a grand adventure. It gets more difficult when you have a family. There’s a lot of moving. There isn’t a lot of predictability. I’m hoping that I’m fostering resilience in my kids with all these changes, but I’m excited to see who they’re going to become. I just want them to know they can do anything. Mom and Dad are both in the military so if they decide to continue in that tradition, great. The biggest thing I want them to know is that there is no traditional role for women. Women can do whatever they want and I can’t wait to get to a point where that’s not even part of the conversation anymore.