The Rise and Fall of a Female Captain Bligh

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U.S. Navy

Captain Holly Graf and the U.S.S. Cowpens

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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."

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