Aye, Aye, Ma'am

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The Navy frigate is dodging heavy San Diego port traffic. Bringing a 453-ft. vessel to dock on a 1,335-ft. pier in crowded waters isn't easy--particularly when the ship has to back in. The tension is evident from the cries of the crew. "Put the bridge right there where the orange sign is!" the skipper barks at a rookie officer. "Slow your motion," the captain snaps, using the clipped lingo of command. "Steer your bow."

When the hull of the U.S.S. Jarrett gently taps the large rubber pier bumpers, sailors and officers gather in a moment of triumph. The docking concludes more than a year's training in preparation for their looming six-month mission. "Today we got to stress all areas--navigation, communication and ship handling--and you did it well," the captain tells the crew. As the huddle breaks, two small children excitedly run up the gangplank. They hug the captain, who asks, "Did you see Mommy's ship come in?"

"Mommy" is Commander Kathleen McGrath, who next week is expected to mark a historic first: she will be the first American woman ever to take a warship to sea. Back on land, women have already smashed through ceilings that once seemed to be made of unbreakable glass, from Silicon Valley to the State Department. But change has come more slowly to the hidebound military. Only 12 of the Navy's 220 admirals are women.

McGrath will lead the Jarrett and its crew of 262 to the Middle East, where they will prowl the northern reaches of the Persian Gulf. Their mission: to hunt down ships smuggling Iraqi oil in violation of United Nations sanctions. It's a game of nautical cat and mouse, as U.S. spy satellites and surveillance planes pick out possible smugglers and relay their whereabouts to ships down below. The smugglers are beyond the U.N.'s reach as long as they stay in Iraqi and Iranian territorial waters. But there are a few swaths of water beyond the U.S.-recognized 12-mile limit where the Jarrett and other allied warships can pounce. The recent spike in oil prices has made smuggling more lucrative. During its two months on the gulf assignment, the Jarrett's crew expects to board at least 30 vessels and order violators to friendly ports, where their ships and cargo will be auctioned off.

Not long ago, McGrath's breakthrough would have seemed inconceivable. Women have served on support vessels since 1978, but it wasn't until 1994 that they were permitted, reluctantly, on warships. In 1991, Admiral Frank Kelso, then Chief of Naval Operations, told Congress bluntly that he didn't want women on warships at all, much less in command. "There is a delicate balance between equal opportunity for men and women," he cautioned the Senate Armed Services Committee, "and maintaining combat effectiveness of our forces."

But times have changed. In part it's simply a matter of the available labor pool. In these booming times, the Navy can't recruit enough men for its 315 ships. The other driving force has been the Navy's resolve to bleach the stain of the 1991 Tailhook Association convention, at which naval aviators sexually assaulted 83 women and then tried to cover it up. For years the Navy has been fighting the perception that women are not welcome in its ranks.

The Navy has come a long way since then. Kelso, who was tarnished by the scandal, retired early. In his wake, women stormed aboard warships. They are now assigned to 155 vessels--106 of them combatants--and they account for 11,400 of the 155,000 officers and sailors afloat. Some ships have substantial numbers: the carrier Eisenhower has 600 women in a crew of 4,700. The Jarrett has only four, all officers, because the lack of berthing space has kept the enlisted ranks all male. By 2004, when nearly all vessels will be opened to women, the Navy is projecting that the average crew will be 12% female. (In January the Navy closed a chapter on the Tailhook scandal, restoring official ties with the group after exacting a pledge that the misconduct of 1991 would not recur.)

The Navy's new generation of women are not just swabbing decks. They've been moving into the highest echelons of the Navy--and the Pentagon as well. Vice Admiral Patricia Tracey is a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Personnel. Rear Admiral Jacqueline Barnes directs the Pentagon's On-Site Inspection Agency, charged with verifying arms-control pacts with other nations. Rear Admiral Barbara McGann is the Navy's top recruiting officer. And Rear Admiral Bonnie Potter is the Atlantic fleet's top doctor.

But sending women into battle remains controversial. Skeptics point to Navy studies showing that female sailors are physically weaker than males and leave ships at more than twice the rate men do, often because they're pregnant. But officers who have commanded ships with women on board have generally brushed aside such concerns. Writing in the Navy journal Proceedings, Commander Gerard Roncolato, former skipper of the destroyer U.S.S. The Sullivans, declared that there is no job on board a ship today that cannot be done by a woman because of a lack of strength or stamina.

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