How Dr. King inspired this African-American female military officer

Lisa McLean
January 18, 2020 - 1:02 pm
LaKeeva Gunderson promotes a junior officer

courtesy of LaKeeva Gunderson

“Martin Luther King paved the way for me,” said Navy Cmdr. LaKeeva Gunderson. “I’m an officer in the military because of him.”

Growing up in North Carolina, King was an important part of Gunderson’s education and community.

“I would pick him as my project for school and church and memorize his speeches,” she said.

Gunderson graduated from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a historically black college in Greensboro, N.C., and for the last 20 years, she has been an engineer in the Navy Civil Engineer Corps (CEC). She said that overall it has been a very good experience for her as a minority and a female. She credits the small CEC community with the reason she has stayed in the military for so long.

When she first started as a junior officer, Gunderson said she wasn’t sure if people would judge her capabilities because she was female and African-American.

“I’m very critical of myself and I analyze things,” she said. “I had to learn to navigate what I had control over and what I didn’t.”

She started her career as a junior officer at Camp Pendleton and then moved into a battalion in Port Hueneme, California.

“I have to say, it was a bit rocky at the beginning,” she explained. “The hardest part was figuring out where I fit in.”

She said she could reach out to other minorities but they weren’t in her command. “I had a lot of mentors,” she said of her experience. She also said she felt she worked even harder to make sure her peers judged her positively.

LaKeeva and husband, Matthew Gunderson
photo courtesy of LaKeeva Gunderson

There were times when she would hear comments from people who said she “wasn’t their boss”. She wasn’t sure if it was a race, a female issue or both. These were mostly from the older enlisted men, but she said that after they got to know her, they told her it was better than they expected.

Gunderson said she’s good at reading people and found that a lot of the apprehension she first encounters is from people who don’t know how to deal with other cultures.

“I think it’s a subconscious thing,” she said. “This person isn’t like me, so they don’t know how to act.”

When she was serving in Iraq, she had qualified to lead a convoy but kept getting denied the opportunity. “I didn’t know what I was doing wrong,” she said.

Again, not sure if her commanding officer wasn’t letting her do her job because she wasn’t meeting their high standards, she said she kept evaluating herself, not knowing what the issue was.  She eventually got her chance, and in a conversation months later, her CO told her he was afraid that if something had happened to her, he didn’t want to be the one to tell her father that something had happened to his daughter.

“I was hurt,” she said. “Because I’m seeing my peers doing what I want to do—that was a wakeup call.”

And in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Gunderson goes out of her way to mentor junior officers, encouraging them to also forge their path in the military, and serving as a beacon just as Dr. King did for so many others.

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