Aye, Aye, Ma'am

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For the past 15 months, McGrath and her crew have been gearing up for their gulf mission. They spent the first few months fixing ailing systems and upgrading others. Then they moved on to training exercises, preparing the ship's departments--combat systems, navigation, engineering, operations--to work under battle conditions. In one exercise, McGrath trains her binoculars on an object in the distance. As a nondescript oil tanker comes into view, a dozen sailors cram into a small boat that's lowered over the Jarrett's port side. Armed and nervous, they're preparing to climb aboard the tanker (actually a Navy supply ship) to ensure it is not smuggling Iraqi oil in violation of the U.N. sanctions. It's risky business: despite a radioed message from the tanker granting the sailors' request to come aboard, an ambush could await. But the captain is confident, and not just because this is only a practice mission. "I know each member of the boarding team, and I know how hard they've trained," she says. "The harder we train in peacetime, the less we'll bleed in war."

Having women aboard--and especially one in command--has changed the atmosphere on the Jarrett. Personnelman Second Class Eldukl Ngiraingas was worried that working with women might make the crew less efficient. "I had a different kind of bonding when I was with all guys on a carrier," he says. "We didn't have to worry about offending people--everyone swore." But then he worked with a female colleague on a fire drill. "I found out that I didn't have to yell to get her to do something," he says. Another difference: modesty prevails. "You can't walk around in your underwear anymore," notes Signalman Second Class Terry Cole.

McGrath has also brought a more inclusive spirit to the Jarrett. Last August she invited the ship's five newly minted chief petty officers and their spouses to her home to celebrate their promotion into the senior enlisted ranks. She and her husband cooked on the outdoor grill. McGrath's meal wasn't in keeping with a long-standing Navy tradition: segregation between enlisted men and officers. Command Master Chief Mike Fulton, the Jarrett's senior enlisted man, says that night was the first time in his 24-year career--spread over 13 ships--he ever attended such a mixed-rank social gathering.

As McGrath heads off to a war zone, she will be feeling one emotion that working parents everywhere can understand-- melancholy at being away from her kids. After McGrath made her way up to command, she and her husband Greg Brandon took time off last year to start a family. They went to Moscow and adopted a pair of unrelated Russian children, Nicholas, 3, and Clare, 2. "Like everything else in my life, this was deliberate," McGrath says. She brings photographs on board, which she displays proudly. "It's real hard being away," she says. "Intellectually, I knew it would be difficult, but I didn't realize, emotionally, how tough it would be."

McGrath has been fortunate to have a husband who put her career first. She met Brandon ("I kept my own name," he says wryly) at a Navy school more than a decade ago. Brandon is proud of what his wife has accomplished. "It couldn't have happened five years ago, but it's the right time to have a woman commanding a man-of-war," he says. Brandon, who retired in 1996 after 17 years as an officer, is now the children's primary caregiver. "It was the right thing to do," he says. "Her career was a little more successful than mine, and trying to have dual careers the higher up we went would have been difficult." Off the ship, McGrath spends most of her time with Nick and Clare. "Being the C.O. has given me flexibility to get time off, to get to the doctors' appointments," she says. "I took Nick to his first day of preschool," she says proudly. "He thinks everyone's mom works on a ship."

McGrath doesn't like to talk about the fact that she is about to make history. "You don't get to this position by saying, 'I'm different and I'm special, so therefore I deserve to be the C.O.,'" she says. In fact, the only change her presence required was to remove the spring-loaded, always-up toilet seat in her cabin's head. The Navy insists that McGrath is under no special scrutiny because of her gender. In fact, she will relinquish her command of the ship a month before the mission ends, simply because the Navy's unrelenting personnel cycle demands it.

Not all the skeptics have been won over. There are still those who object on principle to women commanders. "These are not female jobs," insists Dudley Carlson, a retired three-star admiral who once ran the Navy's entire personnel system. "You can make anything work in peacetime, but the peacetime Navy becomes the wartime Navy in the blink of an eye."

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