Women at Sea : Navy Adjusting as Feminine Tide Hits Ship Crews

Times Staff Writer

It happens sometimes at cocktail parties. Capt. John C. Ruff is pointed out or introduced and someone shakes his head and says, "I feel so sorry for you. I wouldn't be in your position for anything."

Each time it occurs, Ruff is annoyed. A 30-year Navy veteran, he has climbed through the ranks to become commanding officer of the Cape Cod, a destroyer tender with a crew of about 1,200, and he has no patience with the offerings of sympathy.

It's just no big deal, Ruff says, that nearly 20% of his crew is female. His ship has 238 women aboard, one of the largest female contingents in the Navy. With the addition of 226 openings for women over the next two years, the crew of the San Diego-based ship will be more than 40% female.

For many civilian work places, those numbers would be no big deal. But, in the male-dominated world of the Navy, where women until the mid-1970s were barred from any jobs at sea, there remains considerable skepticism and resistance to the changing makeup of the work force. Concerns range from minor gripes by men annoyed that they can no longer walk around in their underwear to questions about shipboard romances and pregnancy.

As the Cape Cod becomes less of an anomaly in the Navy, those officers who pity its captain could soon find themselves commanding substantial numbers of women themselves, or even working for them.

The Navy recently named Cmdr. Deborah S. Gernes, 39, the Cape Cod's former executive officer, the first woman eligible to command a ship. It will be a year or so before she receives her first sea command, and Navy officials predict that it will not be long before several more women are promoted to Gernes' level.

Although women are barred by law from serving on combat ships, the Navy is opening increasing numbers of assignments on "non-combat" ships to women, who now make up nearly 10% of the naval force. About 4,900 of the Navy's 49,000 enlisted women are assigned to ships and more than 1,000 more openings for women on ships went unfilled because of mismatching in skills, according to a Navy report released a year ago.

Substantial numbers of women now work on destroyer tenders, supply ships and other Navy vessels that tend to the needs of aircraft carrier groups as they steam into hot spots like the Persian Gulf. The Acadia, a San Diego-based destroyer tender with a large contingent of women, was among the ships that came to the aid of the Stark, the Navy frigate that was attacked by Iraqi warplanes in the Persian Gulf in 1987.

'Growing Contribution'

The Acadia "did a magnificent job" after the Stark attack, according to Capt. Gordon Peterson, a Navy spokesman in Washington. "There were young men and women sailors working side by side under very arduous conditions to bring the Stark home.

"Navy women . . . are making a growing contribution," Peterson said, "and the contribution is going to grow even more in the future as we expand the opportunity for them to serve at sea."

In recent years, the Navy has pushed the definition of a non-combat ship to what might be its limit, however. It permits women on ships such as the Acadia that wait at the fringes of combat areas to provide supplies and assistance to battleships and carriers, from which they are barred. Women also are not allowed in submarine crews.

Unless Congress decides to change the law, opportunities for women in the Navy will not come aboard battleships or aircraft carriers, but on ships like the Cape Cod. Navy officials studying the issues surrounding the entry of so many women into the service watch the Cape Cod for signs of what problems to expect and what concerns to dismiss.

For Ruff, who took over as commanding officer of the Cape Cod two years ago, the problems have been less serious than he feared. "I've lived in a male-dominated world in the Navy all my life," Ruff said, adding that, until he was assigned to the Cape Cod, his exposure to women in the Navy had been limited to three he worked with in Vietnam.

"There was an interesting spectrum," Ruff said. "One was a very competent officer. She is a captain today. One was an airhead who was floating with the admiral all the time and whom we all vehemently resented. And one . . . hid in her office. I don't know what she did."

Ruff conceded that he felt a little uneasy about having Gernes as his executive officer, the second-in-command and alter ego on the ship. His fears turned out to be baseless, he said.

"With a male, traditionally that's an easy relationship to establish," Ruff said. "We are comfortable with that. We're familiar with that. I've lived in that world before, but I've never been in that world with a woman . . . so there was a little bit of trepidation."

Ruff said he told Gernes "from the very beginning that she was going to have the closest platonic relationship she was ever going to have with a man."

"No captain is a tower of strength," he said. "We are just like any other individual. We have peaks and valleys, and she or he has to look at the peaks or valleys, and where I had a valley she had to have a peak. Her personality had to be subordinated to mine.

"If the captain was mad, she had to keep people away from him. She had to know exactly what was in my mind at all times. She became probably very aware of my personal life. She had to know everything that was in my life at any given time. She had to be able to judge what I would do in a given situation so that, if I were not there, she could do that."

Working It Out

Overall, they developed an "excellent relationship" and were able to "shout at each other just like anybody else," he said. "She is a very professional, very competent officer. She was not what you would call a shy flower, and she couldn't be."

In an interview last January before she left the Cape Cod for an assignment on the East Coast, Gernes said she encountered no unusual problems as one of the first female executive officers in the Navy and did not find it difficult to give orders to men. "I've never found it a problem, and hopefully they never have," she said. "I think most of them are very happy for me and they have congratulated me."

A graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Gernes joined the Navy in 1973 with the intention of leaving after a four-year stint. "But, once I got in, I really enjoyed it, and I decided to stay," she said. "It's much better now for a woman to be in the Navy."

When she joined, she said, "Women were seldom even allowed on naval vessels, much less to be in the ship's company. And the thought of commanding one never crossed my mind. . . . It feels great."

Gernes said she and most other women in the Navy would like to see the federal law on women in combat changed to eliminate the remaining limitations on their jobs. "Most of us feel that we have a greater contribution to make, and that we could make them on all ship types. I think that everybody wants to see the law changed."

As the first woman to be selected for command, Gernes said she feels "some pressure" to perform well. "Naturally, you feel as though everybody's watching you when you're the first," she said.

During her two years aboard the Cape Cod, Gernes said, there were few problems related to the mixing of sexes, despite a six-month deployment to the North Arabian Sea.

"I think any time you have a sexually integrated crew, even on a shore situation, you're going to have some problems with the interaction of men and women. We try to treat each case as a separate case, just as anyone on a shore station would, and try not to make a large issue of it.

'Far Bigger Problems'

"The men and women interact as friends. They interact as co-workers. They have to depend on each other in times of emergency, and they do that very well, as a rule, but there are occasional problems." Relations between male and female crew members are "probably one of the smaller items that the commanding officer of any ship has to face," Gernes said.

"There are far bigger problems that you need to worry about. Such things as maintaining your ship, maintaining discipline, maintaining morale, making sure that your ship meets all its commitments, making sure that it's ready in all respects, making sure the dependents are well taken care of."

One of most nettlesome problems facing officials is pregnancy, which Ruff, like other Navy officials, sees as a roadblock to advances for women in the Navy. In 1987, 46 women assigned to the Cape Cod became pregnant, according to Ruff.

Under existing Navy policy, a woman cannot embark on a cruise if she is pregnant at the time her ship is deployed. If a woman becomes pregnant while at sea, she may stay aboard the ship only until the 20th week of pregnancy. However, she may leave earlier if her medical condition warrants, or if she opts to resign from the Navy.

"Until we develop some means of giving someone an inoculation of something that would say she positively won't be pregnant this six months, and force them to do that. . . . But then you'll end up in all kinds of moral and legal and ethical and cultural problems. But, until you can do that, you're always going to have that issue," Ruff said.

"If there's a problem, you deal with it," Ruff said. "That doesn't mean you don't put (women) in a position of responsibility. You just pay the price."

He said the Navy might have to consider assigning extra crew to ships to compensate for the potential loss of women who become pregnant. Navy officials say the problem is especially acute when ships lose crew members highly trained for specific jobs.

Some crew members are almost impossible to replace. Ruff said he and Gernes had a standing joke on the subject: "If you turn up pregnant, you can have your choice. You want the port or the starboard yardarm? Because I'm going to hang you from one, and the guy from the other. . . . I would have killed her if she turned up pregnant."

During the Cape Cod's last cruise, to the North Arabian Sea, four or five cases of improper "fraternization" occurred, Ruff said. "Sexual relationships occurred, and when we found them we dealt with them," he said.

A typical case involved "two young people playing licky-face in a passageway," he said. "That's fraternization. You can't touch. You can sit there and look at her as long as you want, but you can't touch her--and don't touch him."

Romantic relationships are barred in part because "there are no private places" on a ship and in part because they can lead to favoritism.

"He ceases to look at this other person as a military person and starts looking upon her--or him--as a special person, so they get special consideration, special concerns. . . . He's serving food on the mess decks. She comes down the line. Does she get a better cut of meat? Is that right? No, it's not right. She doesn't have to eat Brussels sprouts and everybody else does? It's just that that now becomes a factor that can't be weighed in the equation."

Dealt With Severely

When couples are caught, they are dealt with severely, Ruff said. "You stand them side by side. You determine what in fact has occurred. You ask them is there any doubt they were in a compromised position." Generally, he said, once the facts are clear he metes out the maximum punishment--45 days restriction, 45 days extra duty, reduction of one pay grade and forfeiture of one-half of one month's pay for two months.

"I'm sending as strong a signal as I can. They had better cut it out."

About two months ago, the Cape Cod got a new executive officer, Cmdr. Chris Lussier, who has spent 15 years in the Navy and has little experience dealing with Navy women. As a result, he said, he mentally conjured up all sorts of potential problems as he waited to join the ship. Like Ruff, he found that the problems evaporated.

"I don't think the problems exist to anywhere near the level I thought they would," Lussier said. But, he said, he is still a little unsure of himself on some issues. He said he has made a conscious decision to avoid calling women by their first names, even though on all-male ships men of equal rank sometimes use each other's first names. "I'm trying to avoid getting too familiar," he said.

And, he said, he is still grappling with female grooming standards. "I'm clear on what men should do," Lussier said. "I know instinctively when they need a haircut. But is a little jewelry wrong? How much makeup is too much? . . . I haven't gotten a handle on that."

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