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Women on destroyer share responsibility with men

ABOARD THE USS JOHN S. MCCAIN IN THE PERSIAN GULF—Seven women are assigned to this destroyer, and none of them has seen war. Before it came last week, they were still adjusting to life in the Navy as officers and as women.

But as the McCain prepared to launch its eighth Tomahawk cruise missile at Iraq and the missile team was double-checking the target's coordinates, Lt. Michelle Mui, 27, was focused on her job, standing at alert, preparing to press the orange button marked "execute."

On the bridge two decks above, Ensign Kelly Patterson, 24, charted offshore oil wells and debris and checked how far into the strike zone the ship could travel before needing to turn the ship around.

Ensign Britt Johnson, 24, was on the bridge monitoring the location of other vessels and making sure the helmsman kept the 505-foot, 8,300-ton ship on course.

The women share the ship with roughly 340 men. They also share the ship's only bathroom for women and tight quarters.

War comes in spurts aboard a Navy ship. Between the calls to launch missiles, the women simply navigate life.

"Navy life can be difficult enough," said Patterson. "You add a war, well, it gets interesting."

Spend enough time around sailors—let alone ones that have spent 60 straight days at sea—and you'll hear them string together a few hardy expletives or catch the end tale of rather rank joke or some legendary—but probably untrue—story about a night in port.

So Patterson, a repair division officer, barely noticed when a young seaman bounded by her on the bridge and announced that he'd caught and squashed the fly that had been buzzing about and that its "eyes separated from his head."

She called out: "Right full rudder, steady on course 180 degrees."

During her six- to eight-hour shifts, Patterson thinks about her husband. They met in Virginia five years ago when they taught at the same martial arts school. She has a brown belt in Chinese Kempo. He's a police officer.

Patterson doesn't know if she'll re-enlist when her tour is up in a couple of years. She wants to have a family and earn a doctorate in environmental toxicology.

"That's going to be a large factor in whether I make this permanent or not," said Patterson. "There are obviously things that I'm missing being out here."

She tries to keep up by e-mail, which is precious aboard ship—especially in the middle of a war and with frequent system-wide blackouts.

When Patterson gets another chance to write, it won't be about missile launches. She'll probably go over plans to meet her husband in Japan in June. Or she'll send a note about how they'll be separated on their first wedding anniversary this May. And how they'll get through it.

"I'll spend my precious e-mail time talking about other stuff," said Patterson. "There is always time to deal with what's going on here."

Lt. Cmdr. Gary Gotham wasn't so sure about working with women officers when he came aboard in 2002.

"But you learn very quickly you don't teach them any differently," said Gotham. "You don't hold back. If I wanted to chew somebody's butt, I did."

At least once, it was Ensign Britt Johnson's hindquarters that got chewed.

Gotham trained Johnson as a damage control assistant. She oversees sailors who handle firefighting, flood damage, sewage and welding problems.

"Yeah, there was some ass-chewing going on," during her training, said Johnson, 24, especially once when she questioned a decision during a training exercise.

"Basically, she's running the whole ship," said Patterson, "Nobody can do their mission if the ship's on the bottom of the ocean."

Johnson joined the Navy two years ago to get away from Minnesota and to serve her country. She graduated from the University of Colorado with a degree in political science.

This is her first tour and it will likely be her last. It's been two years of port calls and e-mails, two years without her boyfriend.

"I would never have a family," said Johnson, who said she has no regrets about her service to the military. "It's almost like giving the best years."

The phone rings in the wardroom where 12 officers have gathered for dinner. Electronics materials officer Kurt Erickson answers it, looks around and calls the abbreviated name of the ordnance officer—Ordo.

Ordo is busy deflecting an attack by fellow officers, male and female, over her curly, often-uncontrollable hair, which she had slicked back into a bun.

She finally hears her name called, lifts her 4-foot, 11-inch frame from the chair and heads to the phone.

"Oh, that's about my gun status," she said to no one in particular, and then tells the caller, "Let me know when it's ready."

As the ordnance officer, Ensign Erin Peterson has roughly 20 men on her watch. She's in charge of the guys who work on weapons systems.

"I've got everything that goes boom except the Tomahawks," said Peterson, 23.

Peterson, who grew up in North Dakota, decided to join the Navy during her senior year at the University of Kansas, where she majored in geophysics. She's been in the Navy for a year and a half.

"I didn't know if I was seasick before I came aboard," she said.

She also didn't know what to expect from the men she would supervise.

"I've got some guys who are a foot taller than me," said Peterson. "And I wondered, `How am I going to deal with that?' "

She didn't have to. The McCain had two female ordnance officers before her.

Peterson doesn't know if she'll remain in the Navy when her five-year tour is up. She's restless by nature, and there is the issue of a family.

"In the Navy, being out to sea is the way to prove you know what you're doing." Peterson said. "But to be out there you're going to miss a large part of your child's childhood."

For women, the issue of children may be the hardest. Only women have to ask whether they'll continue their careers or stay ashore if they decide to have children. A ship can be a dangerous place, especially for a pregnant woman.

A week ago, the ship sent Andrea Kende, 23, a division officer for combat readiness, off to a Polish warship. She celebrated her 24th birthday and watched the dawn of war as the only woman on a ship with roughly 300 men and no private facilities for women. She'll train with the crew, boarding and searching ships for contraband.

Before Kende left, Mui helped her decide on a tattoo to cover the scab from her recent smallpox vaccination. She fears it will leave a scar on her arm.

"I want something that I can wear in a sleeveless dress," said Kende, grinning.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.