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Kathleen Bruyere, Navy captain who helped win right for women to serve at sea, dies at 76

A 1983 photo of Kathleen Bruyere, who rose to become a Navy captain.
A 1983 photo of Kathleen Bruyere, who rose to become a Navy captain.James S. Davis/United States Navy

Joining a military branch steeped in a tradition of “iron men in wooden ships,” Kathleen Bruyere went on to become a trailblazer for women in the Navy, rising to the rank of captain, shaping policies on sexual discrimination and working to expand opportunities for women to serve “not for self but for country,” in the words of the Navy’s unofficial motto.

Ms. Bruyere enlisted in 1966, on the eve of sweeping changes in the service. Over the next decade, as the draft came to an end and the women’s movement took hold, the Navy’s top nurse, Alene Duerk, became its first female admiral; Barbara Allen Rainey became its first female aviator; and the U.S. Naval Academy accepted its first group of women.

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In another first, Ms. Bruyere became the first woman to serve as flag secretary to an admiral, running the staff in San Diego for Rear Adm. Allen Hill beginning in 1975. Time magazine took note, dispensing with its usual Man of the Year award to name Ms. Bruyere one of 12 Women of the Year in January 1976.

She appeared on the cover alongside women including tennis champion Billie Jean King, first lady Betty Ford and U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, D-Texas.

“There will be a seagoing woman admiral in the U.S. Navy in the not too distant future,” said Ms. Bruyere, who was then a 31-year-old lieutenant commander known as Kathleen Byerly.

"None of her fellow (or sister) officers would be surprised if Byerly herself reaches that rank," the magazine reported.

Ms. Bruyere, who specialized in recruiting and personnel, never became a flag officer during her 28 years in the Navy. But she made it easier for other women to advance through the ranks after joining a class-action lawsuit that overturned a ban on women at sea, and later helped conduct a Navy study that opened up 9,000 sea-duty jobs on 24 ships, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

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She was 76 when she died Sept. 3 at a hospital in San Diego. The cause was complications from cancer, said her sister, Lucia O'Dwyer.

Ms. Bruyere cut a distinctive figure in the Navy, breaking with tradition to remain on active duty after marrying her first husband, Navy Lt. Kellie Byerly. They reportedly became the first officer couple to attend the Naval War College in Rhode Island.

When her husband floated the idea of resigning and moving to the farm where he was raised, Ms. Bruyere quashed the idea. “I let him know that there was no way I was going back to any farm,” she told Time.

Among military officers, Ms. Bruyere was “unusual in her organizational links to the women’s movement,” political scientist Mary Fainsod Katzenstein wrote in “Faithful and Fearless” (1998), a history of feminist activism in the church and military. “Her resume, distributed by her office, described her as an ‘outspoken advocate for women’s rights in and out of the service,’ a member of NOW, the National Women’s Political Caucus, and WEAL,” the Women’s Equity Action League.

As part of her advocacy, Ms. Bruyere joined five other Navy women in challenging a law that prevented women from serving on Navy vessels other than hospital and transport ships. By 1977, when Ms. Bruyere joined the civil rights suit, no such ships were in operation.

Initiated by an enlisted woman, Yona Owens, the lawsuit noted that women were effectively barred from advancement, as some positions were open only to people who had served aboard ships. The sea-duty ban also resulted in Catch-22 situations; in a March interview with San Diego Veterans Magazine, Ms. Bruyere recalled that a female aviator was told, “You can deliver supplies on the ship, just don’t land on the ship.”

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Federal judge John Sirica, by then a household name for ordering President Richard Nixon to turn over Watergate tapes, sided with the Navy officers and enlisted women, declaring in 1978 that the law banning sea duty was unconstitutional. The Navy did not appeal the ruling.

"Some people thought it was treason - ‘How dare I try to challenge the system?’ " Ms. Bruyere told the Sentinel in 1991. "But others kept saying, ‘Good for you, good for you.’ "

In 1993, the Pentagon dropped most of its restrictions on women in aerial and naval combat, with Congress changing the law to allow women to serve on warships. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced in 2015 that the military would open all combat roles to women.

Those changes fulfilled a long-awaited dream of Ms. Bruyere’s. Decades earlier, she had told Time that while she did not relish the possibility of combat, “I don’t know any man who does either, and I would not like to deny any woman the opportunity to do anything she is capable of doing, including firing a gun.”

The oldest of six children, Kathleen Mae Donahue was born in Norfolk on Feb. 5, 1944. Her father was an Army officer whose postings led the family to move frequently, including to Greece, Guam and Germany, where she finished high school. Her mother later worked as a passport examiner for the State Department.

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Ms. Bruyere studied political science at Chestnut Hill College, then a women’s college in Philadelphia, where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1966. Her family said it was unclear why she joined the Navy instead of following her father into the Army, though the possibility of seaside assignments in San Francisco or Hawaii may have played a role.

Her early postings were far from glamorous. During the anti-Vietnam War protest movement, Ms. Bruyere worked as an on-campus recruiter in California, wearing civilian clothes to avoid drawing unwanted attention. She later joked that she and her fellow recruiters could have earned the Combat Action Ribbon.

Ms. Bruyere helped lead a 1987 study examining sexism and opportunities for women in the Navy, which spurred the creation of new roles for women, as well as a women’s policy office under the Chief of Naval Operations. She led the office before taking command of the Orlando Naval Training Center, where she oversaw the training of 30,000 enlistees each year, one-third of whom were women.

Under Ms. Bruyere, men and women at the boot camp trained side by side in a new Navy pilot program, going through calisthenics together in addition to watching videos on sexual harassment policies and responding to questionnaires that asked, among other questions, “The Navy is a man’s world. True? or False?”

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In part, the mixed-gender trainings marked a response to sexual assault scandals that had plagued the Navy, most notoriously the 1991 Tailhook Association convention in Las Vegas, where male members of the naval aviators group were accused of drunkenly groping and harassing dozens of women, including female Navy personnel. Ms. Bruyere said that gender-integrated basic training gave recruits “a chance to make mistakes, say stupid things, and tell them we don’t do that here,” according to a New Republic report.

Ms. Bruyere retired from the Navy in 1994 and settled in San Diego with her second husband, Thomas Bruyere, a retired Navy aviator whom she married in 1988. (Her first marriage ended in divorce.) After her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Ms. Bruyere began volunteering with support groups for families affected by the disease.

Thomas Bruyere died in 2009 and was buried at Miramar National Cemetery, where Ms. Bruyere expanded her volunteer work, in a kind of coda to her Navy service. When veteran families came to grieve, she offered solace.

"I've been there, you know, what they are going through," she told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2017. "Yes, we keep a lot of Kleenex around. And, just a touch of the hand and saying, 'I've been through this as well. And how can we help you?' "

In addition to her sister, she leaves three stepsons, Brett, Trent, and TJ Bruyere; four brothers; and 10 grandchildren.