DEb Bodenstedt

Debra Bodenstedt grew up on a farm outside of Wayne, Nebraska where she was taught the merit of hard work by helping her dad with daily chores. It was during these days that Deb started gaining traits that would help her later in life. She learned her work ethic as well as responsibility, flexibility, critical thinking, perseverance, team work, respect, and humility. Deb only had her brother and going to a rural school, her playmates were boys. “It was a natural thing to play with the boys.” Deb never felt out of place in a “boy’s world.” Right after college, Deb taught high school for 3 years. It was a natural stepping stone as both her grandmother and mother were teachers but it wasn’t what she wanted to do. At this time, doors were opening up for women in non-traditional roles and this interested her.

Being a pilot is what first set Deb on her journey. She visited the Air Force first, took their exam and test flight, and was found fit and ready. But they couldn’t get her into a program for 2 years. She then went to the Navy. She tested and did a test flight, was found fit and ready, and they could take her sooner but it would still be nearly a year. However, the recruiter told her there was a new program he believed she could do. He called her after a week and told her about the diver program. Deb signed up and went to Officer Candidate School in Rhode Island. The path was set, when she would graduate; she would become an officer in the specialty she trained for. In Deb’s case, her specialty was diving and surface warfare. Typically in this program, the men attend diving school second but Deb was sent in reverse. A way to make sure she could handle the physical part before the officer training. Deb saw this as motivation. At this time, not many ships took women and being on the ship was what she really wanted. Deb was the only woman in dive school in a class of 32. Deb saw this as a challenge but a “challenge I wasn’t afraid of.” She didn’t want anyone to think she got through just because so she made sure she earned it by merit and talent. A year after Deb was sworn in, she reported to her first ship in Germany. For this first rotation she spent her time in Norway, the Netherlands, and England. Throughout her impressive 28 years she visited roughly 23 countries.

In Deb’s early years, there still were not a lot of senior officers who had worked closely with women; she was a novelty in this case. There were also still many ships that women weren’t allowed on so it was different for the men Deb worked with. Most of them accepted it but there were some who didn’t accept it as well, thinking she wasn’t capable. Deb found she hard to work harder to be accepted and to be successful. When you graduate from Officer Candidate School you leave at a level of O1. Deb’s goal was to make it to O5 because she’d be a Commander and she’d have at least a 20-year career but Deb ended her 28 year career as an O6 which is Captain. “I never dreamed I’d end up with that rank.”


The best part of Deb’s job was the people. No matter where she was, there were good people from different backgrounds and every state that volunteered their time. On a more operational front, Deb found being on the ship as an exciting time. She would go to exciting places to do exciting jobs. One of her most memorable jobs was one of the first big jobs she had as a diver. Deb was on the team that was sent to salvage pieces from the Challenger. Deb feels like every job was exciting though as each one challenged her in a different way. There were times where she’d lead teams that were doing underwater repair on a large ship such as finding a tiny hole to plug up. Another memorable job was on the USS Monitor. USS Monitor is a Civil War vessel that had been underwater since the Civil War. After it was found, there were two summers of work preserving the ship. This was Deb’s deepest dive at 240 feet. It was so deep that she had to use helium oxygen mix to breathe instead of just oxygen. It was an exciting job where Deb’s team worked on removing the engine of the ship. She got to work an underwater jackhammer. They couldn’t stay down long but it was exciting to say she had been part of that job. Overall, Deb’s time with the Navy was rewarding and memorable. Because there were no female divers on her teams, a “major thing was to be decisive in my direction. Be out there supporting them.” One of the largest jobs Deb worked on was removing propellers from an aircraft carrier. One propeller weighs 30,000 pounds. It was a big job and Deb was in charge. She had to make sure her team had everything they would need and had to be supportive. Deb’s last job was as a commanding officer stationed in Pearl Harbor. They were responsible for all of the Navy’s ordinates in the Pacific, from Pearl Harbor to the northern part of Japan. “Continue to be the professional that needs to be in that position. Provide them the means. Reward them for a good job. Be firm in your decisions and discipline.”

Through her time with the Navy, Deb found that she learned about leadership and how to be decisive in her decisions. Most importantly she found the ability to publicly speak. “Learned experience makes you who you are.” These lessons helped her when she moved back to the area and wanted to be involved in politics. Being in the military taught her that politicians are who make the decisions that affect you.

She’s always been aware and interested in politics but as an officer it’s important to be awpolitical. She was free to pick who she wanted to support and voice her beliefs. There was an opening that Deb had applied for but wasn’t selected and then a seat opened up for County Commissioner. Deb decided to run because she wanted to do something for the new community she was a part of. “It couldn’t be any harder than what I’ve already been through.” Deb used the lessons from the Navy and her childhood and she credits that for being a successful County Commissioner. It was a rewarding 4 years and Deb had new challenges and touch decisions but she got to meet new people and she enjoyed every moment. NAPA Junction would be Deb’s success story. “It was a real fight and it was great when it came to fruition.” Deb wasn’t bothered by working with men, “we are equal.”

Getting through dive school and being a diver was a moment that defined Deb. “It put me in a situation where I knew that I could do more than I ever thought I could. Pushed me past limits I didn’t know I had. Everything in your background contributes to who you are now.”

Deb continues to stay active and involved. She was just elected Chair of the Government Affairs Committee of the Chamber. She is still on the Habitat for Humanity Committee. She does volunteer taxes at the center, something she has done for the past 9 years. “I need to be active and involved because this has been my life for 30 years.” Deb was also just elected Chairmen of the Republican Party in Yankton County.

“Retirement isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.”

“I think there shouldn’t be any barriers to women being successful. Believe in yourself. Reach for that gold ring. If you want something, reach for it.”