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Retired Navy captain and trailblazer for women’s equality in the service dies at 76

Retired Navy Capt. Kathy Bruyere, a pioneer for women’s equality in the Navy, died Sept. 3 in San Diego following a battle with cancer, according to her family.

Bruyere, 76, grew up in an Army family and joined the Navy in 1966 after graduating from Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.

Two years later, she married her first husband, then Navy Lt. Kellie Byerly, and the two later became the first officer couple to attend the Naval War College in Rhode Island.

She also served as a recruiter during the Vietnam War and at the Bureau for Naval Personnel, which was then in Washington, among other assignments.

In January 1976, she gained a measure of fame as one of 12 women featured on the cover of Time magazine for a “Women of the Year” (1975) issue — which was done in lieu of the annual “Person of the Year” issue. At the time, she was a lieutenant commander, and in 1975 had become the first woman tapped as a flag secretary and aide to an admiral, according to Time magazine.

Female sailors had worked on the staffs of admirals, the Time story noted, “but had far less authority than Byerly. She heads the admiral’s staff and handles all liaison between his headquarters and the nine Pacific training commands.”

In the issue, she acknowledged that she was not thrilled about the potential for combat but said she “would not like to deny any woman the opportunity to do anything she is capable of doing, including firing a gun.”

A year later, she and five other female sailors helped clear the path for women to serve on ships and aircraft engaged in combat — assignments previously barred to them under the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948.

The sailors, who claimed their careers and potential promotions were negatively impacted by the policy, filed a class-action lawsuit against the secretary of defense and secretary of the Navy in 1977, and U.S. District Judge John Sirica, of Watergate fame, determined the law was unconstitutional in 1978.

Bruyere, then known as Lt. Cmdr. Kathleen Byerly, bottom right, was featured on the cover of Time magazine in the Jan. 5, 1976, issue. (Time)
Bruyere, then known as Lt. Cmdr. Kathleen Byerly, bottom right, was featured on the cover of Time magazine in the Jan. 5, 1976, issue. (Time)

"Some people thought it was treason — ‘How dare I try to challenge the system?’ " Bruyere told the Orlando Sentinel in a 1991 interview. "But others kept saying, " ‘Good for you, good for you.’ "

She went on the serve as special assistant to the chief of naval operations for women’s policy, where she was involved in a 1987 study examining career opportunities for women in the Navy and sexism across the service.

A year later, as the first female executive officer of the Navy’s New York Recruiting District, she and Byerly divorced and she later met and married her second husband, Thomas Bruyere, also a Navy officer.

In June 1991, Bruyere, by then a captain with 25 years of service, took charge of the Navy’s only boot camp that included women, according to the report in the Sentinel, which described her as “arguably one of the Pentagon’s top experts on women in the Navy.”

The Orlando Naval Training Center. which processed 30,000 enlistees a year, one third of them female, had been severely criticized the year before for its handling of rape and sexual harassment cases. It was also slated for closure.

Bruyere remained undaunted.

She viewed the command as an opportunity to create coeducational training and study programs, fostering teamwork and mutual respect in the hope of reducing abuse and assault incidents, she told the Sentinel.

“This is where you plant the seeds, giving recruits the opportunity to solve problems as professionals, to respect each other’s talents,” she told the newspaper.

Bruyere retired in 1994. Looking back on her naval career, Bruyere she was most proud of the work she did “to make a difference and help to open equal opportunities for all,” she told the San Diego Veterans Magazine in March 2020.

When asked about the groundbreaking lawsuit, Bruyere told the magazine, “I just believe we should all have the same opportunities.”

“There is nothing today’s women cannot do — we need them to keep charging ahead,” she said.

In retirement, Bruyere continued to serve her community, her family said. She was on the boards for the local chapters of the San Diego Parkinson’s Association, the San Diego Alzheimer’s Association, the George G. Glenner Center for Memory Care and Caregiver Support, and the San Diego chapter of the Military Officers Association of America. She also volunteered as a volunteer for 11 years at the Miramar National Cemetery, where her husband is interred.

The couple was together for more than 20 years before Thomas, also a retired captain, died in 2009 after a 15-year battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Bruyere, who died at Paradise Valley Hospital in San Diego, is survived by four brothers, one sister, three stepsons and 10 grandchildren. According to her family, she will be buried with full military honors at Miramar.

“Kathy was always so positive and selflessly concerned for the betterment of institutions and others professionally and personally," said her stepson, retired Army Lt. Col. Trent Bruyere. "Frankly, she left this world a better place and will be missed.”

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