By DEBRA VAUGHN
Alicia Parks didn’t plan on joining the military and the Navy was far removed from her childhood on a landlocked Iowa farm.
Sometimes life has other plans.
This fall she became one of 85 newly pinned chief petty officers at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.
The promotion is an important one. A CPO is the point in an enlisted sailor’s career when he or she moves into a distinct leadership role. She wears a different uniform and shoulders extra the responsibilities. Her primary role has shifted from working on the flight line to taking care of her sailors, whether it’s personal or professional.
“If someone doesn’t know the answer to something, they go to the chief,” she said.
Parks, 33, is a chief for VAQ-129, a squadron that trains new EA-18G Growler pilots and EA-6B transitioning personnel.
She joined the Navy at age 21 after spending some time in college. Parks was a solid student but she felt directionless. She found herself wanting to work, not attend class.
As a farmer’s daughter growing up in Cherokee, Iowa — population 5,000 — she was used to working from a young age. First, she helped on her family’s 80-acre farm, where they grew corn and soybeans and tended 50 head of beef cattle. In high school, she worked in a warehouse.
She enjoyed making her own money. At age 16, she bought her own car — a Chevy Beret — and paid for her own gas and insurance.
A Navy recruiter happened to live in her college apartment. She thought at first the recruiter was a flight attendant because she wasn’t used to the uniform. There aren’t too many sailors in Iowa. On a whim, she took the aptitude test and signed up.
“My dad was supportive,” she said. “My mom was worried.”
She initially wanted to be a medical corpsman. That job wasn’t available so the recruiter suggested airplane ordinance.
“I had only been on an airplane once in my life,” she said. “It was uncharted territory. I thought, well, that doesn’t sound too bad.”
After boot camp, her first duty station was to VP-40 on Whidbey Island and her deployments took her to Japan, Iraq, Qatar, Australia and Diego Garcia. Then she went for a Navy dream job — working for the Blue Angels. She was accepted. She moved to Pensacola and was a crew chief responsible for two jets. The job comes with perks. The crew got to do things such as attend wine tours and concerts and stay in nice hotels.
Glamour aside, she found it a sometimes hectic work schedule that pushed her to learn new skills. When a jet wasn’t functioning, she worked long hours.
“You go to these air shows and people think you’re a rock star,” she said. “It’s humbling. You might be the only interaction someone is having with the U.S. Navy. It’s important to leave a good impression.”
She met her husband on that assignment. He’s also a chief petty officer, who is currently deployed. The couple has two daughters, ages 3 and 2.
The couple often don’t see each other for long stretches of time.
“You make the best of it,” she said. “You make sure you spend quality time together as a couple and more importantly as a family. If it were easy, everyone would do it.”
Parks and the other CPO candidates went through a six-week training process that included physical training and professional development and networking. At the beginning she didn’t know many of her cohorts. The experience allowed her to work with people who would form the “mess” — the other chiefs she can count on if she has a question.
“You might not know everything a sailor will bring to you but as a complete mess somebody has been through this.”
Parks completed her bachelor’s degree in 2013. Next she’s eligible for warrant officer and her husband for senior chief. They’ve talked about staying in 20 years and retiring.
“We’ll see which way the Navy takes us,” she said.