The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Sunday, May 12, 1996                   TAG: 9605120160
SECTION: FRONT                    PAGE: A22  EDITION: FINAL 
DATELINE: ABOARD THE KISKA                   LENGTH: Long  :  156 lines


There was ample room for this ammunition ship to slip beneath the Southern Pacific railroad bridge that spans California's San Pablo strait. But to Cmdr. Nori Ann Reed, the ninth woman to captain a U.S. Navy ship, the passage seemed to be shrinking.

``When I was the executive officer (second in command) there was plenty of room under this bridge,'' said Reed. ``But since I became captain, it has narrowed.'' Her eyes twinkled and a smile danced on her lips.

``Two degrees, right rudder,'' said the civilian pilot, Barney Edwards, shifting the bow as it reached the bridge. The Kiska's 41-foot width had plenty of room and the 540-foot length was quickly through the stone bridge supports.

Minutes later, the Kiska tied up at the naval weapons facility at Concord, Calif., where it could take aboard everything from Tomahawk cruise missiles to laser-guided smart weapons and dumb iron bombs. Later this spring, the 18-ton Kiska will be re-arming warships in the Pacific.

But had something gone wrong - had pilot Edwards erred, had the navigator taken a bad bearing, had the rudder controls crashed, had there been one from an endless list of potential mishaps - the captain of the Kiska would be to blame.

Because responsibility falls totally on the captain, Navy tradition and regulations empower Reed with godlike authority over ship and crew of 409 souls.

She is one of five current female naval officers who have spent 18 years working their way up to command their own ships. The five are assigned to logistics ships; only now are women being assigned to combat ships, where it is likely to take another 18 years for an officer to work her way up to the captain's chair.

That Reed and four other women have ascended to this pinnacle today is the flip side of a U.S. Navy with ongoing image problems.

Inappropriate sexual behavior or sexual harassment has beached the careers of five Navy admirals in the past year; the Naval Academy has been embroiled in cheating scandals, rape accusations and now a car theft scandal; and debate still rages over the 1991 Tailhook convention, where drunken Navy and Marine aviators groped, pawed and otherwise assaulted 83 women in a hotel hallway. Making it worse was a cover-up by Navy Tailhook investigators and the oblivious secretary of the Navy and chief of naval operations who attended the convention.

Nude pinups and bawdy language are still part of the Navy, where men command 358 ships. But with women now coming aboard almost every combat ship, sailors are holding their tongues and removing offensive photos. Adm. Jeremy Boorda, chief of naval operations, has been attempting to effect a sea-change with a ``zero-tolerance'' for sexual harassment.

``You don't change 221 years of culture in a moment,'' Navy Secretary John Dalton said. ``The Navy had race problems in the 1960s and drug problems in the 1970s. But today we are a model for race relations; we are a model for dealing with drugs and we soon will be a model for equality for women. I can foresee the day when women will command our combat ships.''

Reed saw and heard all the behavior that the Navy is trying to change - and worse - when she first went to sea. ``It is very difficult to turn to a senior officer and say, `Sir, I find your behavior offensive,' '' Reed said.

And while she's no apologist for Navy misogyny, Reed has thrived where 55,548 women - 12.5 percent of the service - are crashing through previously impenetrable barriers. More than 7,700 are at sea.

``When was the Tailhook convention? Five years ago, and we're still reading about it,'' Reed said. ``Things can get distorted.'' To Reed, her rise to the captain's chair was proof the Navy has been changing.

It is also something of a secret within the Navy, according to Cmdr. Carol Pottenger, captain of the Shasta, another ammunition ship.

``An inspection team will come on board and ask questions like, `What's it like working for a woman?' '' Pottenger said. ``We're kind of amazed that there is still that kind of reaction from the Navy at large.''

Pottenger exchanges information with Reed; Cmdr. Lee Hackney, captain of the Willamette, an oiler that supplies ships and planes with fuel at sea; Cmdr. Linda Lewandowski, captain of the Mount Baker, an ammunition ship; and Cmdr. Roberta Spillane, captain of the Merrimack, a Norfolk-based oiler.

All five, along with four women who preceded them as captains of other logistics ships, were pioneers when the Navy opened sea duty to women in 1978.

First assignments were on tenders, massive ships with crews of 1,200 that supplied everything from re-engineered parts to fresh lettuce for destroyers or submarines.

As an ensign, Lewandowski's rite of passage was to light the boiler for her first ship's steam-driven engine. If the fuel or air mixture is not just right or the torch falters in a shaky hand, an explosion is possible. She was surrounded by senior chiefs and smirking sailors. ``I smartly lit that boiler,'' Lewandowski recalled during a satellite telephone interview. Now, she's providing logistics for the George Washington's carrier battle group in the Arabian gulf. And when a storm came up off the coast of France last winter, it was Lewandowski who charted a course in 55-knot winds and 22-foot seas.

Spillane challenges allegations that female sailors lack the upper-body strength to keep up with male sailors. ``Heavy lifting is not a gender issue,'' Spillane said. ``You may need two or three sailors or even a forklift to do the job. That has to do with numbers, not gender.''

Lack of upper-body strength and monthly temper tantrums are two of the cliches that irritate sailors like Spillane, who has spent 18 years rebutting critics with her on-deck performance.

Women at sea - there are 80 aboard the Shasta - have changed Navy life. Pregnancies account for an average 10 percent unexpected crew losses each year, according to Navy statistics.

Ships with women and commanded by women can be vastly different worlds to those coming from all-male combat ships.

``There were no women on the destroyers and the cruisers I served on before coming here,'' said Lt. Cmdr. Tilghman Payne, executive officer on the Kiska. To the former Naval Academy midshipman, the traditional sailor macho is absent on the Kiska. By their presence, female captains have cleaned up crew language, improved crew manners and made individuals think twice before speaking. On their ships, mutual respect is the watchword.

``It's much more civil,'' Payne said. ``It is more pleasant. It is definitely a different place.''

Today's five female captains followed in the footsteps of Cmdr. Deborah Loewer, a former captain of the Mount Baker and the most senior surface warfare officer in the Navy. Loewer has battled for equality in top circles of the Navy, where she says women were always forced to meet higher standards than men.

``It always seemed to come down to the head (the bathroom) argument,'' said Loewer. Women couldn't go to sea because of a lack of toilets. ``I said, just put a sign on the door: One side says, `Occupied by Female' or `Please Knock First.' ''

One admiral insisted that full-length mirrors first be installed so women could check their hemline before reporting to the bridge.

``I said there was no way we were going to be wearing skirts on a ship,'' said Loewer, who has seen a decline in what she called the ``knuckle-dragging'' mentality in the Navy.

But it was Tailhook and its aftermath that led the Navy to open combat ship berths to women. In 1993, the first women - officers and enlisted - began reporting to carriers, cruisers, destroyers and frigates - every combat ship except submarines. The Navy argues that submarine quarters are too cramped for two sexes.

There are now 374 women officers and 2,332 enlisted women on the combat ships. By 2011, women will have worked their way up the ranks on those ships and will be competing with men for command of the most lethal warships in the world.

But it won't be enough for some of the women who have fought their way to the captain's chair.

``There is no good reason why women can't serve aboard submarines,'' said Loewer. ILLUSTRATION: Photos


The ninth woman to captain a U.S. Navy ship is Cmdr. Nori Ann Reed,

shown above as she sits on the open bridge while the ammunition ship

Kiska gets underway from Oakland, Calif.

Cmdr. Roberta Spillane, commanding officer of the Norfolk-based

oiler Merrimack, monitors mid-Atlantic refueling operations in

February with the aircraft carrier George Washington, also