Deborah Potter is the current town administrator for Oak Bluffs, and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. As an enlisted Marine, she served as an air traffic controller stateside and overseas before coming to work on the Island for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Her daughter, Samantha Potter, born and raised on Martha’s Vineyard, serves as a captain in the U.S. Air Force. She graduated from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in 2015, then enrolled in and graduated from the Air Force Academy in Colorado before receiving a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Oxford. Currently, Samantha attends Stanford Law School on a Knight-Hennessy scholarship.
Deborah Potter: I’m not originally from the Island. In 1990, [I began] work as an air traffic controller at the Martha’s Vineyard aircraft control tower. That’s how I met my husband. His family has been here in some capacity for well over 125 years. But we decided to make this our home, so we moved here in 1992 when we got married, and then the kids, Samantha and her sister, were born in 1997.
[I joined the Marines] in Pennsylvania. That’s where my father was from. And he was a Navy enlisted individual who retired out of the Navy. I graduated [from high school] in 1982, and went right into the military because of financial considerations for college. I spent just under eight years in the Marine Corps.
[As a Marine], I was in air traffic control. I spent the majority of my time in Yuma, Arizona; in addition, a year over in Okinawa, Japan, where I worked on a controller cross-training program at Kadena Air Force Base.
When I got out in 1990, I worked [on the Island] for the FAA for a little over a year and a half. But during that time, I got recalled for the first Desert Storm. I was out of the military, and under a program at the time called IRR (Individual Ready Reserve), which meant I [still] had to maintain my uniform, and for two years after I got out, if the military needed to recall me for any purpose, they could, which they did when the first Desert Storm operation began.
But that was just a six-week recall. Most of my [military work] was in the United States or Japan.
[In Japan,] I was on what was called an unaccompanied tour. I was there for one year. The Marine Corps had very limited roles for air traffic controllers at their base, so we managed to talk the Air Force into allowing several of us air traffic controllers to go over to their facility to train and augment their staff. For me, it was a very enjoyable time. I would say I would have liked to explore the area more; it just didn’t quite work out at the time. But I definitely enjoyed my time working with the Air Force.
Samantha Potter: I think my mom’s experience called me to service. Also, both of my grandfathers had served in various capacities. So I think our family as a whole just has a public service orientation. And so I knew I wanted to do something in that vein when I graduated high school, and I spoke to my mom a lot about the military. She was very adamant that it was the right path to look at commissioning sources, instead of going into the military as an enlisted member, which was what [my mom and grandfather did].
She also helped me pick out the right branch. For me, that was the Air Force. I think also the fact that my father was a pilot, and we’ve been around aviation for quite a long time growing up. So it was just a natural fit.
A lot of people don’t know about all of the amazing educational opportunities in the military. And one of them I’m actually pursuing; it’s a career transition program, from my previous job, to become a lawyer for the military and enter the JAG [Judge Advocate General] corps.
And so right now, even though I’m basically a full-time student, I’m still in the Air Force. My assignment is to be a student at Stanford Law School. I’m very fortunate for that opportunity.
DP: My history [in the military] is over 30 years old. It’s not the same military anymore. [Now,] especially for young women, it’s a great opportunity for them to at least open their eyes to and explore it as a potential option to help them achieve their goals.
Marines are generally a little bit on the tougher side. When I first enlisted, I did face a lot of discrimination because of my age and my gender, even an air traffic control.
But I will say when I left the military, by virtue of myself and a few other women really succeeding in that field, we were changing the dynamics of at least that occupational specialty. And the trend in the military started changing as well. It became less of a discriminatory place and was more of an inclusive place. But like many things, it takes time.
Over time, policies change, ideals change, practices change, and the people change. And so the newer generations coming in will often have a different idea of what’s acceptable and not acceptable than older individuals from prior years.
I don’t regret being in the military at all. I think it was the best pathway for me to open up all of the avenues and doors that I wanted to open up for myself. And if I had not gone into the military, I would not have ended up here, which means I would not have met my husband, which means I would not have had my two beautiful daughters. So for that, I’m eternally grateful for my military service.
SP: I think it is, it is much different, probably, than my mother’s experience, in part because, as she mentioned, it is a different military.
And I think in a lot of better ways. It’s much more progressive in terms of social policies, and it takes sexual assault and sexual harassment incredibly seriously, which is something as an organization I’m really proud that we do. It’s still a problem, it’s still a problem everywhere, but I think [the Air Force] ] is really getting better at it.
In terms of just being a woman, the biggest issue, or the biggest struggle I face, is just oftentimes you’re the only woman in the room. And that hasn’t changed. And I think that’s more of a recruiting problem. Women generally don’t go into the military as much as men. I’ve never really been discriminated against or faced challenges in that way, personally, but it is something you notice. And I’m getting more comfortable with that. But definitely, when I first commissioned and entered the Air Force, it was hard being the only woman in the room, and as a younger officer, just trying to navigate that space.
But I have just an amazing network of strong female mentors at all ranks, from a general to my fellow officers. And I think the female network, and the camaraderie and mentorship, has been so helpful and so strong. And I think that’s probably changed from your time in the service, where it was maybe a little more competitive between women.
DP: There were just so few of us. And it was harder. For a lot of people, mentorship wasn’t necessarily a big idea that was pushed and stressed. But I know towards the end of my time [serving], we were moving more toward trying to do that. I never looked at my Marines by their gender, their color, their religion. “You’re a Marine, do your job.” And that’s all I expected back — let’s have that same courtesy.
That was kind of the mentality that we were trying to address: Know your people, and employ them in accordance with their capabilities.
So as far as I was concerned, I didn’t care about your gender. Could you control airplanes or not? And if you could, I would do everything I could to help you. If you couldn’t, I did everything I could to help you find a job better suited for your skill set.
SP: I’ve had a relatively interesting career path so far, [with] amazing academic opportunities. And so [I’ve been able to] focus on myself. I might have other younger officers who I’ve supported.
I spent a year at Hanscom [Air Force Base] as an acquisitions officer. And that career field is unique, in that we are mostly officers. That’s a big difference between the Air Force and the Marine Corps — if you’re an officer in the Marine Corps, you would routinely command probably 100 enlisted members. But in the Air Force and a lot of its career fields, you actually wouldn’t.
I am moving into a career field where I will get to lead enlisted members. And that is something I’m really excited to do. I’m excited to learn and to practice, and learn from them.
When I graduate, I will be in the Air Force for at least the foreseeable future. I think it’s a good fit for me. It’s something I like doing, and I like being part of the organization. My fiancé and I are really trying to go abroad again, and work overseas. In the long term, Massachusetts, or Martha’s Vineyard, is definitely a place where we’d like to end up.
DP: It would be a great opportunity for Islanders, especially younger Islanders, just to know about the opportunities that might be available to them, because we just don’t seem to have as many opportunities here anymore as we used to.
There’s so many programs now that are available, where the military can help pay for your education. And that’s a lot of things that some people may not look into or explore.
These opportunities don’t generally present themselves when you follow a regular pathway. But sometimes the military can accelerate a pathway and open up doors that you never even imagined existed.
And if you can marry it up with your interests — like, for example, Samantha is going to be on the cutting edge of space law, and is actually going to be doing a NASA internship for a year during her second year of law school.
SP: I think one of the draws to me for joining the Air Force was it is a very cutting-edge branch. They’re at the forefront of a lot of really cool investment, development, and technology. The Academy exposed me to outer space as a future domain, and not just through a military lens, but as something we’re going to use, and we already use in our daily lives. So it kind of sparked my interest, and I’ve been studying it.
It was kind of through the marrying of social science, humanities, and the sciences that I found this love for space, because it isn’t just science. It’s also law and philosophy. I mean, there’s so many disciplines that go into understanding how we think about outer space. Even just philosophically, how do we want to use the domain? And so I think all of my background, from high school to my time in college really, helped point me to the domain, and then helped me be prepared to study it.
When I was at Oxford, my international relations master’s degree was in outer-space law, so I’ve been able to explore those opportunities, a lot of them provided by the Air Force, to pursue that interest.
And now we have the Space Force, which is underneath the Air Force. And so that is an opportunity that I can, you know, go be a lawyer for the Space Force, which is probably the only place, other than maybe NASA and some other government agencies, you can actually practice spacewalks.
DP [on her daughter’s future profession]: I think it’s fantastic. She’s a super-intelligent individual, and it’s right up her alley. I think she’s going to do phenomenal work in this field. Especially as things progress. She’s already been published multiple times for space law, legal briefs, and I just think she’s going to be fantastic. And someday or another, maybe we’ll all work for her.
Well, this is also one of the reasons why I kind of suggested bringing Samantha in on this conversation. She’s way more interesting than I am.
Interview by Abigail Rosen.