Women are so common in the upper ranks of the U.S. military these days that it's no longer news when they break through another barrier. Unfortunately, the latest benchmark isn't one to brag about: being booted as captain of a billion-dollar warship for "cruelty and maltreatment" of her 400-member crew. According to the Navy inspector general's report that triggered her removal and the accounts of officers who served with her Captain Holly Graf was the closest thing the U.S. Navy had to a female Captain Bligh.
A Navy admiral stripped Graf of her command of the Japan-based guided missile cruiser U.S.S. Cowpens in January. The just-released IG report concludes that Graf "repeatedly verbally abused her crew and committed assault" and accuses her of using her position as commander of the Cowpens "for personal gain." But old Navy hands tell TIME that those charges, substantiated in the IG report, came about because of the poisonous atmosphere she created aboard her ship.
The case has attracted wide notice inside the Navy and on Navy blogs, where her removal has generated cheers from those who had served with her since she graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1985. While many denounced Graf, even greater anger seems directed at the Navy brass for promoting such an officer to positions of ever-increasing responsibility. Graf declined an interview request.
While in command at sea where a captain's word is law and she or he has the power to make or break careers Graf swore like, well, a sailor. She "creates an environment of fear and hostility [and] frequently humiliates and belittles watch standers by screaming at them with profanities in front of the Combat Information Center and bridge-watch teams," a crew member told the IG. According to 29 of the 36 crew members who were questioned for the Navy's report, Graf repeatedly dropped F bombs on them. "Take your goddam attitude and shove it up your f______ ass and leave it there," she allegedly told an officer during a stressful maneuver aboard the 567-ft., 10,000-ton vessel.
Junior officers seeking her guidance were rebuffed. "This is one of the reasons I hate you," she allegedly told one who was seeking her help. When another officer visited her quarters to discuss an earlier heated discussion, her response was terse: "Get the f___ out of my stateroom." She allegedly told a male officer, "The only words I want to hear out of your mouth are 'Yes ma'am' or 'You're correct, ma'am.' " She also allegedly put a "well-respected master chief" in "time out" standing in the ship's key control room doing nothing "in front of other watch standers of all ranks."
While most of the witness statements contained in the IG report didn't specify whether the person testifying was male or female, the IG asked at least two female officers whether they viewed Graf as a role model. A younger woman recalled going to Graf to seek her help. " 'Don't come to me with your problems,' " she said, quoting Graf. " 'You're a f______ department head.' " The officer also said that Graf once told her, "I can't express how mad you make me without getting violent."
A second female officer told the IG that Graf was a "terrible role model for women in the Navy," alleging that Graf once told her and a fellow officer on the bridge, "You two are f______ unbelievable. I would fire you if I could, but I can't."
The IG investigation, triggered last June by three anonymous complaints, noted that while interviews were being conducted over Graf's conduct at the Yokosuka Navy base outside Tokyo, four crew members provided "unsolicited written statements concerning what they perceived as abuse." While curses are not uncommon aboard Navy vessels, to have them repeatedly brandished like clubs against subordinates especially in front of more junior crew members is unusual. TIME obtained a copy of the IG report, from which names had been deleted, under the Freedom of Information Act.
Graf told the IG she had "no recollection" of making such comments, and the report says she "appeared incredulous at the accusations." She "repeatedly" emphasized her "very high standards for [her] crew" and "repeatedly" spoke of a "groupthink mentality" aboard her vessel. Graf said a "small group of disgruntled officers in the Cowpens wardroom were spreading rumors throughout the crew and convincing others that the command climate and [her] demeanor were far worse than they actually were." But she followed up with an e-mail. "Many times I raised my tone (and used swear words) to ensure they knew this times, it was no kidding," she wrote. "I also did it on other occasions to intentionally pressurize the situation."
The lone support of Graf in the 50-page report came via an unsolicited e-mail from a Navy colleague who had spent two weeks aboard Cowpens and said Graf may be "blunt, but clearly [her] intent is readiness." But the IG came down firmly on the side of her crew. "The evidence shows" that Graf violated Navy regulations "by demeaning, humiliating, publicly belittling and verbally assaulting ... subordinates while in command of Cowpens," the report concluded. Her actions "exceeded the firm methods needed to succeed or even thrive" and her "harsh language and profanity were rarely followed with any instruction." Her repeated criticism of her officers, often in front of lower-ranking crew members, humiliated subordinates and corroded morale, "contrary to the best interests of the ship and the Navy." The IG also found that she had failed to adequately train younger officers.
The report claims that she grabbed several junior officers or sailors to get their attention or move them elsewhere usually while in a heated discussion and threw a wadded-up piece of paper at one. It also says she asked junior officers to play piano at her personal Christmas party and to walk her dogs. These minor infractions might have been overlooked if committed by a more even-keeled commander, but in Graf's case they were used to substantiate the charges of "assault" and the use of her "office for personal gain" that led to her removal.
On one popular Navy blog there are 190 posts on Graf, nearly all negative and most from those who served with her. There were only four supportive posts, none apparently from anyone who had served with her. "The only way that Capt. Graf could have failed at being CO of the Cowpens was to try to please all her sailors," a backer wrote. "Leadership is lonely and not for the fainthearted."
But many officers who served with Graf over the years were not surprised by the IG's findings. Paul Coco, a 2002 Naval Academy graduate, served as a gunnery officer under Graf aboard the destroyer U.S.S. Winston S. Churchill from 2002 to 2004. "She would throw coffee cups at officers ceramic, not foam," he recalls, "spit in one officer's face, throw binders and paperwork at people, slam doors." The hostile work environment led to a gallows humor among the crew. "We all would joke that after Bush liberated Iraq, he would next liberate Churchill," he says. That day finally came in January 2004, when Commander Todd Leavitt arrived to replace Graf. "As soon as Commander Leavitt said 'I relieve you' to Commander Graf, the whole ship, at attention, roared in cheers," he says.
"I'm more upset that the Navy let this go on so long," says Kirk Benson, who retired from the Navy as a commander three years ago after a 20-year career. Many complaints up the chain fell on "deaf ears," he says. "When I think of Holly Graf, even 12 years later, I shake," he says of serving under her when she was second in command on the destroyer U.S.S. Curtis Wilbur in 1997-98. "She was so intimidating even to me, a 6-foot-4 guy."
Nicole Waybright served as a junior officer for five years, including a year with Graf on the Wilbur in 1997-98, before leaving the Navy in 2001. "She was a terrible ship handler," Waybright recalls. "I was 23 years old and I wanted to show, just by my actions, that women could do it and just blend in like the gray doors with the rest of the gray ship," she said. "But she betrayed our gender." Waybright felt the Navy pushed women into command too quickly at the time, but adds that Graf's "sadistic cruelty" didn't help.
Shawn Smith is a retired Navy captain who along with her husband, also a retired Navy captain, applauded their daughter's decision to join the Navy in 2007 after graduating from Notre Dame on a Navy ROTC scholarship. Erin Smith was "seriously considering" making the Navy a career, like her parents, until she was assigned to the Cowpens. "Her experiences with Captain Graf definitely helped form her decision to do her time and leave the Navy," her mother says. "I was appalled that this happened, guilty I think she went into the Navy because of us and angry, because these kids did not deserve this kind of leadership."
Even though Graf comes from a Navy family her sister and brother-in-law are both admirals, and her father was a captain there appears to have been no "godfather" shielding her and greasing the skids for her promotion, Navy officers say. Prior to the IG probe's release, the Navy had tapped Graf for a top job at the Pentagon following her Cowpens command. Now she's being shuffled off to a Navy weapons lab outside the capital. "Her career," an admiral says, "is over."