Catherine Pampel on the Importance of Helping Others

Photo of Catherine Pampel for the I Am Not Invisible Women Veterans Project

Gunner's Mate Second Class Catherine Pampel

Catherine Olivia Stoffel (later Pampel) grew up near Kewaskum, Wisconsin, on her family's farm. From an early age, Pampel dreamed of a life in service to others and had ambitions of being a fireman, police officer, or EMT. After graduating high school, Pampel decided to enlist in the United States Navy with the help of a cousin who was a Navy recruiter. Pampel completed basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois, in December 2008. Pampel then went to Advanced (A) School to become a gunner’s mate, a role that put Pampel in charge of overseeing the operation and maintenance of different weapons on board ships. Pampel graduated from A School in July 2009 and received orders to the USS Gonzalez (DDG-66), based out of Norfolk, Virginia.

USS Gonzalez (DDG-66), Naval Station Norfolk, VA, United States. 01.04.2013. Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kayla Guthrie.

USS Gonzalez (DDG-66), Naval Station Norfolk, VA, United States. 01.04.2013. Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kayla Guthrie. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement. 811013. Public domain.

When Pampel first began service aboard the USS Gonzalez, she noted she was among the few women serving. Over the years, she observed more and more women join the Navy. As a gunner’s mate second class, Pampel completed two deployments in the Horn of Africa, engaging in anti-piracy missions around the nations of Djibouti and Somalia. These missions included boarding, searching, and seizure of potential smuggling vessels.

Some aspects of life at sea were enjoyable. For example, during a 293-day deployment, Pampel could visit Key West, Florida, swim in the Caribbean, and participate in Fleet Week in New York City. Pampel described the fun aspects of Fleet Week, such as seeing Katy Perry and Tim McGraw in concert and attending a baseball game at Yankee Stadium. Part of Fleet Week duties included running tours aboard the USS Gonzalez. It was during one tour that Pampel took notice of a particularly suspicious individual. Here, Pampel describes discovering a man that she later learned was a Russian spy:

PAMPEL: And then when you're on duty on the ship, you're the designated tour guide showing people around the ship and everything like that. And actually, we actually caught a Russian spy. I was on the back leg of a tour and the guy that was in front of me, that was doing the tour and I was just kind of making sure people weren't like, going be-- you know, being lost or left behind, I saw this guy and that was just kind of like-- when you have a tour guide, tour guides are usually like, "Ooh, guns cool! This is so cool!" You're not inside the gun taking pictures and everything like that and asking the most crazy off-the-wall questions. So, then when we were over at a 25-millimeter gun on the midships area, I scooted over to the officer deck and had them call for authorities because we might have a spy because this guy is asking very obnoxious questions that some tour guide, just random Joe off the street would not ask unless he was about to, you know, build a ship. [Laughs] So, he got-- he got taken into custody by NCIS and [pause] we were-- we had tours of well over 10,000 people a day coming on, Girl Scout troops, everybody.

Life at sea was not always easy or fun. In addition to everyday gunner's mate duties, Pampel also worked as a victims advocate as part of the Navy's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response group. She underwent training in how to advocate for victims of sexual assault. With Pampel’s assistance, the Navy prosecuted and dismissed two individuals who committed assaults. Here, Pampel describes her role in the group and the difficulties associated with being an advocate:

PAMPEL: Other roles I had on the ship, I was the part of the Sexual Assault Prevention Resource Group. I was an advocate for my division and my department. So, what that is is when people either get sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, anything like that, even though I don't want to think about that [laughs], they have-- they have the means of being able to come to us, whoever is an advocate and talk to us and tell us the situation so that we can take it upon ourselves to assist them and give them any resources that they need, whether it's they want it to be confidential or non-confidential. Non-confidential, you're going to NCIS, you're going to the commander, you're getting this reported with certain people knowing it. Confidential is you only have your mandatory reporters knowing it. So, chaplains, us, nurses, doctors, and that's it. Confidential is harder because we can't necessarily prosecute people for things. Unfortunately, that is-- sexual assault is a big thing that's still in the Navy. And unfortunately, we're human and it happens. And I-- that was probably the hardest part of my service, was the people that I met and the people that I had helped. That-- that-- that part of my service shook me because I always, when I was a kid, I always had that superhero mentality. I always wanted to save them all. And unfortunately, I couldn't save everyone. And out of the thirty-six people that I did help with their-- their reporting and getting the prosecution and everything like that and getting the people justice, I lost two of them to suicide. Unfortunately.

In 2012, Pampel opted to re-enlist in the Navy for another four years. Her new shore command was to be Panama City, Florida. However, Pampel ran into difficulty maintaining the weight requirement needed to stay in the Navy, and after failing the weight requirement three times, She was forced to end her career in the Navy. Pampel was initially given a general discharge under honorable conditions but later fought to get it changed to an honorable discharge.

After fighting for and receiving her honorable discharge in February 2014, Pampel moved forward in her life. She used the GI Bill, a veteran's benefit, to return to Wisconsin and attend the Waukesha County Technical College. In December 2016, Pampel earned an associate degree in criminal justice and law enforcement, hoping to become a police officer. While attending college, Pampel took notice of the school's veteran students and became an advocate for this group. Here, Pampel describes spearheading the construction of Waukesha County Technical School's new veteran center:

PAMPEL: And then while I was at Waukesha County Technical College, I saw that-- I noticed that they had a veterans group like, just like a veterans club. And then I met with the veterans supervisor liaison and had talked to her and was asking, where's the-- the veterans hangout? Where do veterans go and hang out? And she said, "I don't know. The multicultural room?" And I was like, the multicultural room is filled with people that just got out of high school. Us veterans have seen war and everything like that and I had-- I don't know, I just-- I was-- I was venting that day or whatever. I felt really bad for it. And she still hangs it over my head to this day. We still talk. I told her we need a place to hang out. We need a place for veterans to go, hang out, do our homework, and then a place where you can be, not in a back office and be central so that us veterans can be like, hey, I got a question about this, you know, in the VA, or this-- my 911-- my GI Bill. So, in 2015, the summer of 2015, I had became a part of the Student Veterans of America. I became a chapter president for the Waukesha County Technical College and brought it up to the board, the president of the school and said, "With you guys redoing this part of the school, is there any way that you could fit in a veteran's service center or some sort of place for veterans to go hang out and do their homework and find somewhere where our liaison can be somewhat central?" And we had gotten donations from Home Depot, we had gotten donations from areas around Waukesha County, in-- and then also grant from the school and with being a chapter president, getting a big grant to be able to put that in. And it is still to this day active. So, they have a-- there's a veterans service center at Waukesha County Technical College. And I was a big part of it.

Pampel was the Student Veterans of America president at her college in 2015 and takes pride in knowing the chapter is still active. Since leaving the Navy, Pampel has remarried, lives with her wife in Kewaskum, and works as an EMT. She also volunteers for the Kewaskum Fire Department and is a Kewaskum American Legion Post member. As part of the Legion, Pampel assists with veteran funerals and talks about her Navy career at local schools. During school visits, Pampel talks about the importance of volunteer work, which is informed by her experiences advocating for others in the Navy, college, and community.

The full interview with Catherine O. Pampel is available by clicking the image below:

Screen image of the oral history page for Catherine Pampel.