The public has a fascination about women in the military, particularly women who choose to enter either West Point or the Naval Academy. Kathleen Toomey Jabs graduated from Annapolis in 1988 and her first mystery, Black Wings, is an absorbing read, not only for its storyline but also for its peek inside this male-dominated environment. Jabs was no doubt inspired by her experience, but aside from the setting, the uniforms, and some incidents that occurred during her plebe year, the plot comes from her imagination.
Two strong women are the main characters in the book, Lt. Bridget Donovan, a deputy assistant for media operations, and Audrey Richards, a Navy aviator, who dies when her plane plunges into the ocean on a training exercise. Bridget doesn’t accept the party line on how her former roommate died. She undertakes her own investigation and uncovers an organized campaign of harassment involving black wings and a wall of shame that sabotages reputations and military careers.
Jabs’s career path may have been set at birth since she was born at the Naval Hospital in Bethesda. “My dad was in for four years, but it was while I was very young,” she says. When it came time to select a college, however, she found herself drawn to Annapolis. “I was very interested in travel and at the time I thought I was going to be doing math and science,” she says. After enrolling, she decided to major in English. While at Annapolis, Kathleen took creative writing courses, kept a diary and penned some short stories, but she really began to treat writing as a calling when she took graduate courses at the University of New Hampshire.
At first, she resisted writing about the academy. “I was writing strange fiction,” she says with a laugh, “trying to be the voice of a young boy or a shipwrecked person off the coast of Florida in the 1770s.” One of her professors finally told her to focus on something she cared about. “It was kind of a challenge,” she says, noting that it took a long time to get Bridget’s voice right. “I tried hard not to process my memories, but to get into a story.”
Kathleen says she was always intrigued by aviators, at one point thinking she might become one. That avenue was ruled out because of her eyesight and balance. One day the line came to her that would become the center of the story: Audrey Richards wanted to fly. “Dan Brown had lived nearby in New Hampshire and I was reading a lot of Da Vinci-type stuff,” she says. Thinking about mysteries and conspiracies, she had the direction for the book. Bridget was the character she connected with and she borrowed events from her own plebe summer. (She realized that she was obsessed with doing pushups since that scene, later condensed, originally took up ten pages). “I didn’t feel bound by the truth,” she says. “I felt free to build the fiction and to shape the story.”
Is there such a thing as black wings in the navy? “It’s pure imagination,” she says, as is that wall of shame. She is pleased, however, that some readers felt the plot was believable. One woman told her: “Wow! This really happened?” Kathleen took that as a huge compliment.
While Bridget and Audrey graduate from the academy, during their four years they encounter more than their share of discrimination and harassment. How did Kathleen find the environment? “It was rough,” she admits, saying that she was pretty sheltered in high school. “There were days that I definitely hated it.” Yet she found the academics excellent, the classes interesting, and the opportunities—including a program in Ireland—incredible. “There was always something to look forward to, to love.”
Like most young women, Kathleen thought about what to wear while she was at the academy, but with a twist. Her wardrobe consisted of uniforms. “There were just so many of them!” she says. “I hated it by the time I was a senior. I just wanted to let my hair down, grow my hair, or wear a dress to the fancy dances.”
As a member of the Naval Reserves, Kathleen still has “a whole closet of uniforms.” Similar to Bridget in the book, Kathleen does public affairs. “The old model of one weekend a month [in the reserves] is gone,” she explains. With email and other means of communication, Kathleen says she works almost every day. In January, she participated in a naval exercise at Norfolk, Virginia. (She lives in Virginia Beach with her husband, who is still active in the Navy, their daughter, 16, and son, 15).
Getting her book published happened, in many ways, because of the Naval Academy. After receiving several rejections, Kathleen reconnected with her former English professor at Annapolis, Molly Best Tinsley, who, along with Karetta Hubbard, had launched Fuze Publishing. Tinsley loved the book and after some revisions, Fuze published it.
Jabs plans to write a followup, also featuring Bridget Donovan. “Bridget will go forward,” she says. “I have thoughts of her maybe getting a little ahead in time.”
A sequel might illustrate how things have changed for women at the Naval Academy. Congress authorized women to attend service academies in 1975 and the first women graduated in 1980. “We were still so new back then,” she says. “The combat exclusion law was still in place. There were a lot of things we couldn’t choose when we graduated. You could only go on a certain ship or fly a certain kind of plane. It was very limited. So much of that has opened up. Just having more women and senior women around who can be role models has helped.”
Kathleen Toomey Jabs