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Raising naval officers: Mom’s military service paved the way for her children to follow in her footsteps

Lt. Junior Grade Lael Sommer, right, and Ensign Peyton Sommer stand for a portrait in front of the USS Gravely (DDG 107) at Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Virginia. (Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)

A force to be reckoned with.

That is how Lt. j.g. Lael Sommer and Ensign Peyton Sommer describe their mom, retired Cmdr. Jensin Sommer.

“She’s about grit,” Lael said.

A first-generation immigrant from Taiwan, Jensin decided early she would attend the Naval Academy. She graduated in 1991 and pursued a 21-year Navy career, serving as a public affairs officer while raising two children with her husband, also a career Navy officer.

Now, those two children are following in her footsteps.

Lael Sommer, 25, is a navigator aboard the USS Gravely, a Norfolk-based destroyer. Peyton Sommer, 23, is a naval flight officer assigned to the VAW-120 Hawkeyes at Naval Station Norfolk. Both are Naval Academy graduates, just like their mother. Their father, retired Capt. John Sommer, also is a Naval Academy graduate.

“Having two parents come home in naval officer khakis, that was on the regular,” Peyton said of his upbringing in a military household. “And as a kid, I was like ‘Oh this is normal, this is the way most kids grow up.’ But most kids grow up with very different circumstances, and being 23 years old now, I give more credit to my mom and applaud her. She did what she needed to do, and her and my dad — their combined efforts — got the job done.”

“But so many other women had many more challenges than I. Yes, I juggled an active-duty career, but there were women of my era who were operational …” Jensin began.

“We are trying to give you credit,” Peyton said.

“Yeah, credit where credit it’s due. You did a good job, Mom,” Lael said.

The Sommers’ careers led the family to five duty stations, including Japan for Jensin’s seagoing tour from 2006-08 on the USS Kitty Hawk.

“It was a great combination of operational experience for me, but also knowing my husband and kids were on base with a great setup, living overseas, and periodically being able to see them,” Jensin said.

She recalls the family often had to rely on childcare centers or nannies while taking on non-traditional parental roles to juggle the demands of an active duty Navy career with raising children.

“And also being a partnership — my husband and I. He had to step in and do a lot of the cooking and household stuff. And I am more handy … You just have to make it work,” Jensin said.

But sometimes there is no substitute for Mom, Lael said.

“I could not for the life of me do my own ponytail. I asked my dad a couple times. He would do it for me, but he could not,” Lael said, shaking her head as she laughed. “And I remember the first day she got back I was like, ‘Mom, can you put my hair in a ponytail?’”

Lael, who was between 9 and 11 at the time, doesn’t remember her mom ever being home when stationed in Japan, but has memories of visiting her aboard the carrier. Seeing her mom as a strong female in a professional capacity, Lael said, set the tone for how she carries herself as a naval officer.

“She has warned me to be cognizant that perception is reality. I can be a lot more bubbly and outgoing, so I think she did a good job of mentoring me to be aware of that so that I’m not immediately underestimated … I am smart. I am capable,” Lael said.

As the Gravely’s navigator, Lael is responsible for determining the ship’s position and ensuring it is in safe water when underway. She also trains and oversees seven quartermaster sailors.

“Just observing her and the way that she talked to people, it instilled a lot of confidence in me growing up,” Lael said. “It kind of helped me learn how to not only like talk to people, but talk to different kinds of people.”

For Peyton — his mom who offered support and guidance during trying times at the Naval Academy.

“I never thought I’d be cut out for the Naval Academy … Once I finally got to the Naval Academy, I struggled a lot in my first year — just part of growing up and maturing,” he said. “But knowing that my mom was able to go through all the training and excel and have a successful career, 21-plus years in the Navy. Knowing where she came from — if she can do it, I can do it.”

As a naval flight officer aboard an E-2 Hawkeye, Peyton will interact with the radar systems, relying information to carrier strike groups.

Lael and Peyton said Jensin is “not a typical mom.”

“She was not the type that can’t bear to be away from her children,” Lael said. “She was like, ‘You just do the job. You chose to be in the military. You chose to make the sacrifice. You know what comes with it.’… But she nurtured the qualities in us today that I think I’m most proud of.”

She and Peyton then rattled off: perseverance, determination, ambition, integrity, resourcefulness,

“And gratitude,” Peyton said.

“Yeah, definitely … She’s a force to be reckoned with,” Lael said. “Even going through the Navy when it was called GURL — that was what they called general unrestricted line for women back then — but she was just unfazed by that. I feel like she was a trailblazer in that she was a first generation immigrant. She decided from a young age she wanted to go to the Naval Academy because she wanted to give back to this country that gave her and her family so many opportunities.”

But Jensin says she and her family are “nothing special.”

“I was just very fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve the Navy … It means so much to me to have gone to the Naval Academy and to have been in the Navy, and for my kids to follow in my footsteps is utterly the best thing I could have ever wished for, and more than that, that they find it fulfilling,” Jensin said.


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