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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McGrath doesn't plant herself in the captain's chair. She roams the bridge, chatting up her crew, her arms crossed or on her hips. And she has struck a deal with her crew. They can drive the ship--something not all commanders permit--as long as they keep her fully informed about what's happening. McGrath's job requires her to discipline a handful of sailors every month for infractions ranging from unauthorized absences to drug use. She resists the temptation to prove that she can be just as tough as a male commander. "I don't try to emulate a man, nor do I try to do what a guy would do," she says. "I have to be myself."

The Jarrett may be one of the smallest warships in the Navy fleet, but it packs a wallop. It carries 1,100-lb. Standard missiles, which are capable of blasting enemy aircraft out of the sky 20 miles away. And its Harpoon missiles, weighing nearly 1,400 lbs., can sink an enemy ship more than 60 miles away. The Jarrett has a pair of SH-60 Seahawk helicopters on its fantail, poised for search and rescue, antisubmarine warfare, supply runs and special operations. The ship also boasts a 3-in. gun, torpedoes and antiaircraft weapons.

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.

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