As F-18 fighter jets thundered off the deck of the USS Eisenhower in preparation for Friday’s homecoming, and helmeted crew members scurried around the deck directing the huge aircraft, there was no way to distinguish the men from the women on the nation’s first coed combat ship.
That’s how it’s been for the past six months at sea, say the men and women who have lived together aboard the aircraft carrier. Never mind the jokes about the “Love Boat,” the reports of 15 pregnancies among the women sailors or the widely publicized incident in which a couple was discharged after they videotaped themselves having sex.
“I don’t see them as females. I see them as partners,” explained Jeff Williams, a military police officer, as the history-making ship that had been his home prepared to come into port at Norfolk, Va. “Everyone worked as a team.”
“They are like my brothers,” said Lt. j.g. Kristen Dryfuse, a Naval Academy graduate who works as a navigator in an F-14 fighter.
Indeed, as the sailors debarked into the arms of waiting friends and family - ending a Navy experiment in social evolution as well as a successful deployment - those on board declared the mission a sign of what is to come.
“There is no turning this clock back,” declared battle group commander Rear Adm. Daniel J. Murphy.
“The experiment is over. They” - the women - “are fully integral to everything we do. We knew it before. Now the whole world knows it,” Murphy said.
“It would be strange to go back to an all-male ship.”Throughout the mission -
which began last October when the ship sailed with 415 women among the 5,000-member crew - combat readiness remained at the highest possible levels, Murphy said. There were no mishaps or accidents during 2,600 combat sorties, 96 exercises and three major operations that took them to the Mediterranean Sea, Indian Ocean, Arabian Gulf, Adriatic Sea and Black Sea.
The ship’s commanding officer said it was the most successful deployment of his career.
Indeed, there were distinct ben efits in having women handling some of the jobs. Consider the case of Tammy Wilkins, an aircraft mechanic.
Wilkins measures a scant 5 feet tall. She discovered that she could crawl beneath helicopter seats to make repairs without taking the seats out, a huge time-saver that her bulkier and bigger male colleagues appreciated, she said.
Differences not an issue
The women interviewed acknowledged gender differences in physical size and strength, but cast them as just that - differences - not disadvantages. In today’s Navy, technical skill and intelligence are far more important than brute strength, they said.
Indeed, the deployment appeared to be a successful exercise in unit cohesion, the military priority for combat forces, because soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen must trust one another to fight effectively together.
Crew members complained most about the adverse publicity that attended news that 15 pregnant women had been sent home. Twelve had become pregnant before the ship set sail and two became pregnant during a Christmas port call in Cannes, France, when their husbands joined them for the holiday. The episode involving two sailors who recorded an illicit romantic encounter on video tape was discounted by crew members as an aberration - and a somewhat comical one at that. Both sailors involved in the incident were dismissed from the Navy.
The Navy’s sexual harassment training before the deployment created some initial tension on board because it put both male and female sailors on guard, the sailors said.
“The men felt intimidated at first. All that sexual harassment training made them afraid we were out to get them,” Master Chief Cynthia Daley said. “But once we could show we were here to do a job and work with them, the tension went away.”
Men take more showers
There were a few changes from the old days of all-male crews. Male sailors said that dinner conversation was far more interesting with women on board because women had more varied interests than sports and work.
And there was some concern that too many showers were being taken, using up the ship’s fresh water supply. Women were initially suspected of showering too often, but officials quickly discovered that it was male sailors who were taking two showers a day. They wanted to look good, Murphy said with a laugh.
Admiral Murphy said the keys to success were a single standard for performance and discipline, and adequate training. One female pilot had to be sent home because she had trouble landing on the carrier deck. A male pilot went home for the same reason.
For younger female sailors at the start of their careers, the future looks limitless now. Ensign Katherine Pearson, a 1993 Harvard graduate, saw sea duty just two years after being commissioned an officer in ROTC in the joint program run out of MIT.
“This means a lot in terms of career opportunity,” she said.
Said Capt. Mark Gemmill, “I have no doubt in due course that a woman will run this aircraft carrier.”