Women in the Military: JoAnn Ortloff

Posted by Julie Imel on

JoAnn Marie Ortloff, Fleet Master Chief, USN, Retired

  • The Navy’s first female Numbered Fleet Command Master Chief when assigned to Commander, U.S. THIRD Fleet, 2009-2012.
  • The Navy’s first female U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa Fleet Master Chief, May 2012-April 2015.
  • The most senior enlisted active-duty female in the Navy at the time of her retirement in 2015.
  • Branch of Service: United States Navy
  • Rate/Rank: Fleet Master Chief, USN, Retired
  • Dates of Service: 1982 – 2015
  • Birthplace: Suffern, New York
  • Current Residence: Bullhead City, Arizona
  • Spouse: Rich Ortloff
JoAnn Marie Ortloff, Fleet Master Chief, USN, RetiredPhotos courtesy of FLTCM JoAnn Ortloff: JoAnn Marie Ortloff, Fleet Master Chief, USN, Retired, served in the U.S. Navy for 33 years. A few photos highlighting her accomplished military career are shown above. Clockwise; FLTCM Ortloff participates in a Naval Ceremony in Naples, Italy; FLTCM Ortloff’s official U.S. Navy portrait; and FLTCM Ortloff with her husband, Rich Ortloff.
    • Captain Joy Bright Hancock Leadership Award
    • Six Sigma Greenbelt
    • Sea Service Leadership Compass Award
    • Secretary of Defense Award for Exceptional Public Service
    • Legion of Merit (LOM)
    • Meritorious Service Medal
    • Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal (3 awards)
    • Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal (4 awards)
    • Good Conduct Medal (9 awards)
    • Humanitarian Service Medal
    • Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal
    • Multiple campaign/service ribbons

      The Sky is the Limit

      JoAnn Ortloff, Fleet Master Chief, USN, Retired, grew up in a family with a history of service to the military. One of seven children, JoAnn’s mother encouraged her, and her siblings, to reach their greatest potential, pursue their goals, and serve their country in some capacity. “Our mom raised us to be independent, and strong. She told us, ‘You’re all capable of getting an education and doing what you dream of doing. There are no boundaries for women.’ She was a pretty strong woman, and a pretty strong influence in all of our lives.”

      Some of Joann’s siblings enlisted, and others served in different ways. JoAnn especially admired her sister, Linda, who served in the Army in the early 1970s, during the Vietnam era. “I looked up to her a great deal,” JoAnn said. “At age 15, I was curious about how planes were able to fly from here to there without incident. Linda explained what air traffic controllers did as we watched them line up and land during a hike up the mountain near Sky Harbor airport. I was fascinated. So when I joined the Navy, and air traffic control was an option, I jumped at the opportunity.”

      Fleet Master Chief (AW/SW) JoAnn Ortloff joined the Navy in 1982. She was primarily assigned to the West Coast onshore and off shore islands. Early in her military career, women were not authorized to serve on combatant ships, but that would eventually change. Congress opened combatant ships to women in the mid-1990s, giving her the opportunity for which she had been waiting. She immediately requested to serve on board. In 1998, she was assigned to sea, on board the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74).

      From Air Traffic Controller to Fleet Master Chief

      Throughout her career, JoAnn served in a variety of air traffic control positions, including: Control Tower Supervisor, Radar/Approach Control Supervisor at a Fleet Area and Control Surveillance Facility, Carrier Air Traffic Control Supervisor, and more.

      On board CVN 74, she was promoted to ACCS (Air Traffic Control Senior Chief), becoming the ship’s Training Department Leading Chief. She was also assigned as a ship’s Duty Section Leader.

      On her next assignment on shore, she was promoted to ACCM (Air Traffic Control Master Chief). This is the enlisted grade of E-9, the highest in the military service’s enlisted grade. As a Master Chief, the door was open for her to pursue leadership opportunities. She was selected to the program, and her rating specialty changed from Air Traffic Control to a Navy Command Master Chief (CMC.) She would no longer control planes or work in the field. Instead, she would fulfill advanced leadership roles.

      Joann explained that within the Command Master Chief program, there are advanced levels of assignment. “My first assignment as a Command Master Chief was to a destroyer, the USS Milius (DDG 69). A Command Master Chief is part of the command’s ‘Triad’ of leadership — Commanding Officer, Executive Officer and Command Master Chief. This role serves as an advisor to the CO on crew policy, wellbeing and more. There is an independent Navy instruction of these duties.”

      Her next two CMC assignments were US Naval Hospital Guam, followed by the CMC for the U.S. Third Fleet. She was the second woman to be selected as one of the 4 U.S. Navy Fleet Master Chiefs (FLTCM). She served as the first woman Fleet Master Chief for the Commander, Europe and Africa from 2012 to 2015 when she retired. At the time, she was the senior enlisted woman in the Navy.

      Advisor, Consultant, Manager, Leader & More

      The role of a Navy Fleet Master Chief requires a varied and specific skill set. “A Navy Fleet Master Chief is responsible to the Flag Officer they are assigned to for a variety of things, as well as represent their specific area when sitting on Navy level boards for policy and programs,” JoAnn said. “I represented the Navy in Europe and Africa. In this role, I also educated and spoke with foreign partners on how the enlisted Navy was managed, from education to promotion to specialty assignments, and more. This was to provide opportunities for their military to see options as they were building their own branches. A Fleet Master Chief is an advisor, consultant, manager, leader and so much more.”

      Challenge Accepted

      JoAnn enjoyed a lengthy military career of 33 years, facing, and learning from, a variety of challenges along the way. “In the beginning, the bigger challenges involved being a young woman in a male-centric environment. As women in military roles were opening up, and more women were joining, this was an educational piece for male counterparts, policies, programs, language, uniforms and more,” she said. “I never saw myself as a woman in the Navy, but simply as a Sailor in the Navy. And, I never had a problem being a woman in any role. I never felt I had to prove myself to anyone, but instead prove myself to my craft, and to myself. This is how I overcame the naysayers, the doubters or the uneducated.”

      She also explored new ways of learning when it came to mastering the fast-past world of air traffic control. “High school learning methods were different. In the Navy, and in air traffic control, I had to learn by repetition, team dynamics and trusting that small failures lead to great accomplishments if you were willing to admit you didn’t know everything and trust that others could help you do better,” she said.

      Her first ship deployment also tested her fortitude. “Preparing to be six months or more away from home, my spouse, my family, my comfort zone, was daunting,” she said. “But again, trusting in my Navy education, my fellow Shipmates and leadership to get me ready, while humbling, it was what got me through the first few weeks while I got my sea legs, so to speak.”

      JoAnn Marie Ortloff, Fleet Master Chief, USN, RetiredPhotos courtesy of FLTCM JoAnn Ortloff: From left; CMDCM Ortloff, U.S. Third Fleet, at San Francisco Fleet Week in 2011, and FLTCM Ortloff on the air in Naples, Italy, 2014.

      Words of Wisdom from a Fleet Master Chief (Retired)

      JoAnn embraces a philosophy of lifelong learning, and she gained valuable insight as her career in the Navy progressed. Here are the top five lessons she learned from Chiefs, and as a Chief/Fleet Master Chief in various roles (good advice for those pursuing military careers and civilians alike):

      1. Don’t wait for things to happen to you — make them happen for you. You own your future.
      2. Ask questions, and never think you know it all, because you don’t. You shouldn’t know it all because you should never stop learning.
      3. Words matter, so choose them wisely. You can't take them back, whether it’s in person, in an email or on social media.
      4. Challenge the process, but not the authority. Encourage your friends to do the same. It’s ok not to agree with a policy or a law, but it is not ok to break it. Instead, be a part of improving it.
      5. Change is good for the sake of improvement, not for the sake of change. Just because you always did something one way, doesn’t mean someone else’s way isn’t great, too. Give it a chance. Think about it: if we didn’t have change or improvement, we wouldn’t have cell phones, smart cars or plastic Army Women soldiers.
      JoAnn Marie Ortloff, Fleet Master Chief, USN, RetiredPhotos courtesy of FLTCM JoAnn Ortloff: FLTCM Ortloff in the field.

      A Personal Connection to Plastic Army Women

      JoAnn has a special connection to the Plastic Army Women project. She was the first person to write a letter to BMC Toys President Jeff Imel, reinforcing a concept that he had floated at his kitchen table years earlier: Plastic Army Women should be added to those wonderful buckets of toy soldiers.

      In 2018, she attended a military appreciation event while on a cruise with fellow military women, active duty as well as retired. As they chatted, the topic turned to a discussion about how women in the military are represented in civilian society. “We started asking: why isn’t there more representation of military women in our civilian society, and why is there a foreign look on people’s faces when we say we’re in the military?” JoAnn recalled. Stories of being asked for their husband’s military ID or their veteran status being challenged in parking lots ensued. “We were all talking about things we could do better, and discussing how we could get the message out there. About a month after that cruise, I wrote Jeff a letter.”

      That letter inspired Jeff to pursue the project further, as it confirmed there was an audience for this new series. JoAnn stayed in touch, connecting BMC Toys to a huge network of military women who offered feedback throughout product development, supported the Kickstarter campaign, and helped share the Plastic Army Women story.

      “They’re such great educational tools,” she said. “We’re all sharing stories on our veterans’ website about how we’re using them.” She carries them with her and when teachable moments present themselves, she’s ready. The small figures play a big role in helping to illustrate that women serve in the military, too. Today, Plastic Army Women can be found at conventions and seminars, workshops and, of course, toy chests across the country.

      A Fleet Master Chief’s Definition of Retirement

      She may be retired from her military career, but JoAnn remains committed to serving her community, and her country, through a number of volunteer efforts, including:

      Military Women’s Memorial

      JoAnn represents the state of Arizona as an Ambassador for the Military Women’s Memorial at Arlington. “A few years ago, the memorial reached out to some retired military women, seeking volunteers to represent their state at functions where they could advocate, represent the memorial and help spread the word about registering active, reserve, retired and Veteran women, at no cost,” she said. “I love this role because I am reaching so many women and men who were not aware this existed, or that they could tell “herstory” and keep a national record of firsts, accomplishments, and more. I love getting out and meeting people and sharing these stories, seeing our legacy and being a part of capturing it for generations to come.”

      Learn More: https://womensmemorial.org/

      Surface Navy Association

      As West Coast Vice President for the Surface Navy Association, JoAnn has the opportunity to conduct Zoom podcasts and interviews, and present in person at symposiums and local Navy events to educate on the Surface Navy. Her mission is to bring together enlisted and officer groups to share experiences and to expand outreach.

      Learn More: http://navysna.org/, Board of Directors - Surface Navy Association (navysna.org)

      USS IOWA Museum

      JoAnn serves as advisor to the President of the USS IOWA Museum, offering consultation on planning, events and more for the upcoming National Museum of the Surface Navy being built on board. “I enjoy the opportunity to get the word out about this great ship/museum, her crew, and their legacy as well as being a part of the first Surface Navy Museum team. It is humbling when I let folks know they can join as a Plank Owner and share in this great adventure.”

      Learn More: Los Angeles Museum and Tour | Battleship USS Iowa (pacificbattleship.com), Surface Navy Museum | Bring Adventure to the Surface

      Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Trusted Advisor Group

      JoAnn is a member of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Trusted Advisor Group. Drawing upon her experience as a retired senior leader, she offers consultation on Navy programs, policy and more regarding diversity. Her contribution offers insight into why and when some past policies did or did not work well.

      - BMC Toys Staff Writer

      Special thanks to JoAnn Ortloff, Fleet Master Chief, USN, Retired, for her service, and for taking the time to share her amazing story with the BMC Toys community.


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