Commander Lilia L. Ramirez, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Natural Born Leader & Pioneer
By Anna Tulia Ramirez
From the time she was a baby in Colombia, my sister Lilia was a natural born leader. She was the first grandchild, so she had all of the family mesmerized by her commanding and enchanting energy. As a toddler on the farm, when night fell and candles were lit, the insects would be drawn to the light, or to her, and the frogs would come to eat on the insects, but Lilia would order them with a stick to get in line to make way for the other frogs who had not eaten. I remember summers where Lilia would have the household running like a tight ship; with scheduled time for programs, chores and play, or when she was very young, leading the Pennysaver route with all of us, her younger brothers and sisters, in tow. She was the first child out of the house, and given a great deal of responsibility from an early age, since both of our parents had to work. As the youngest of five, I look to Lilia and am proud of all that she has accomplished: the challenges she faced as a five-year old immigrant, her graduation from the Naval Academy, her marriage and the birth of her children. It is with great honor that we feature her as this issue's Working Woman, a pioneer in her field, and an inspiration to all, that anything is possible.
ANATULIA RAMIREZ: How did it feel to be one of the first "Latina-American" or Colombian-American women accepted into the Naval Academy?
LILIA: When I applied to the Naval Academy, I did not do it with the view that I was one of the first Hispanic women to do so. I saw it as an opportunity to get a first-class education and the start of a career. As an immigrant and the oldest of five children, I especially felt the pressure to make it on my own. My parents struggled when they emigrated from Colombia and they did not have funds saved for a college education for all of my siblings. Although I did not have any first-hand experience with the Navy or with the military, I was drawn to what it meant to serve my nation -- a nation that had truly been an oasis for my family that was fleeing the harsh guerrilla violence in Colombia. At once I felt a desire to serve my country and find a way to strike it on my own. I was also very much attracted to learning how to become a leader. I remember reading and re-reading the Naval Academy brochure and being motivated about the Academy's mission: To prepare midshipmen morally, mentally and physically to be professional officers in the Naval Service. I found it very appealing to be able to go into a career where I could also travel the world (and I did!). When I was applying, Congress had just changed the law to allow women to enter the service academies. I did not dwell on that novelty because I had already survived the novelty of coming as an immigrant and having people question my abilities.
ATR: What were the major obstacles you've had to overcome in your career and life's journey overall? And what has helped you get through the challenging times?
LILIA: When asked what were my major obstacles, I would have to say that they were my own self-imposed obstacles. When I arrived at the Naval Academy, I had more folks coaching me to make it. I learned very quickly to question my fears of running the obstacle course, learning to shoot a firearm and surviving some very challenging academic coursework. I also found that if I didn't dwell on my gender or Latin background and ignored the derogatory remarks, people eventually got tired of making them. I was known at the Naval Academy for ignoring those comments and at times, I think that both my male and female classmates wondered if I was just oblivious to them. At times, the slings and arrows were hurtful but I did my best to keep my eye on the prize and for the most part, it worked. I found that this was a similar tactic to the one I used as a young child in Glen Cove, New York, when children in my elementary school would ridicule my accent, olive skin and clothes.
ATR: Who were your mentors, inspiration or influences?
LILIA: My first mentors were my parents and I feel very blessed to have had them. I also have a very deep faith in God and I knew that he would protect and help me through the trials and tribulations of being a new immigrant in America and being a new midshipman at the Naval Academy. I drew a great deal of inspiration from my faith, parents and siblings. Along with my brothers and sisters, I was also raised to be fiercely independent. My parents were thirty-five years of age when they emigrated from Colombia with 3 children and one on the way. They went from being white collar business workers to a blue collar janitor and a dishwasher. I never saw them lose their self-esteem and dignity. They treated each job like the opportunity of a lifetime and they were always driven to be the best at what they did. This attitude really permeated me and all of my siblings. My parents also taught me to challenge assumptions, to do everything to fulfill my dreams, to have an unrelenting drive to persevere and NOT GIVE UP. I remember that there were other Colombian immigrants that came to New York after my parents immigrated, but they could not live in America and returned. My family stayed.
After my parents, my other mentor is my husband. I met him at the Naval Academy and we met up again in Europe a few years after we graduated. We were good friends at the Naval Academy but did not date until we had already served in the Navy for several years. I often tell friends that I became a better leader and naval officer after I married my husband and after I became a parent. My husband was and is my best friend. He is my confidante and the person that truly has my best interests in mind. I also became his mentor and between the two of us we've coached each other in our careers. What a blessing it has been to have someone so close to me that understood all aspects of a naval career and who could help me navigate through the many challenges. Being in the Navy is all about leading and working alongside people. A naval officer must inspire confidence in both subordinates and superiors alike. My husband and I learned a great deal about mentoring our sailors and officers through their problems and their triumphs. We traveled a great deal while we were in the Navy and had to help each other as traveling companions when there was no one else. Mentoring to me means that I have learned sufficiently from my own mentors to pass along the lessons learned of my failures and successes so that those behind me and ahead of me will be better off. A mentor is also a person that one can depend on when a new challenge presents itself and who will team up with you to meet the challenge. Mentors and those mentored are also tested in hard times and come out better people when they come out of difficult situations, all the wiser. My husband and I took that attitude when we had our children… who have been another tremendous blessing in my life.
ATR: What have you been doing since retiring from the Navy and what are your plans and ideas for the future?
LILIA: I retired from active duty in 1998. That was also the year that my Mother passed away after battling cancer. It was a very difficult year for me but I knew deep inside that I would persevere. After taking some time to be with my family I went to work for Raytheon, as a lobbyist, for two and a half years.
While at Raytheon, I was the Director for Congressional Relations and was responsible for lobbying Raytheon's Navy, Marine Corps and Intelligence programs on Capitol Hill. I worked extensively with the Senate and House Armed Services and Intelligence Committees as well as with many state delegations from across the country where Raytheon produced and developed products for the Department of Defense.
After my time with them I then took more time to be with my children and family and did some more traveling. Last year, I took a new position, back in government, as the Director for International Liaison for the Office of Naval Research. I was asked to open a field office for the Office of Naval Research in Latin America, an effort which I was especially honored to lead. This fall, the Navy will open a Latin American office in Santiago, Chile, to encourage scientific collaboration with Latin American scientists and engineers. I am in the process of hiring a scientist and engineer to represent the Navy. I felt especially honored to do this work as it allowed me to use my Spanish language skills as well as to connect with my Latin American heritage. This has also been an opportunity for me to "give back" - to work in the region of the world where I had my beginnings, and to work for the Navy that had given me a career.
With respect to my future, I want to do work that is gratifying and which allows me to continue to give back to my community and my country. I also want to continue to do the Lord's work by raising well-adjusted children and pass down to them my life's lessons and my parents' mentorship. Deuteronomy 6:5-7 says, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up."
We enjoy traveling together around the world and hope to take our children to each of the continents before they reach the age of 18. I've found that travel offers a great proving ground for mentoring relationships in that we must constantly support each other and learn from each other.
I also wish to write a book geared towards young teens. I would like to pass down my experiences in the hope that some of them will draw inspiration from it and use it follow their dreams.
For information on the United States Naval Academy, visit www.usna.edu