Aye, Aye, Ma'am

The Navy makes history as it sends the first U.S. warship ever commanded by a woman toward the troubled waters of the Persian Gulf

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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.

And Navy women have in fact been playing an increasing combat role. In 1996, Lieut. Junior Grade Erica Niedermeier became the first woman to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles from a warship in combat, helping send 13 into southern Iraq. Two years later, flying her F-18 off the U.S.S. Enterprise in a mission over Iraq, Lieut. Kendra Williams became the first female pilot in U.S. history to drop bombs on an enemy target.

McGrath, 47, didn't grow up dreaming of making naval history. "I'm an accidental Navy officer," she says. "I joined on a whim." The eldest of six children, she spent her high school years at a U.S. base on Guam while her father--James McGrath, a 29-year Air Force veteran--flew B-52 bombing missions over North Vietnam. After graduating from Cal State-Sacramento with a degree in forestry, she spent six years with the U.S. Forestry Service. When she grew bored, her father suggested she give the military a try.

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