For the first time, a group of women graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy will join the once-exclusive fraternity of fighter jocks.
They entered the academy four years ago aware that their career options in the Navy would be limited because of the ban against women in combat.
But in the last month, the barriers have begun to fall. Female midshipmen have greater opportunities than ever, now that Defense Secretary Les Aspin has lifted prohibitions against women flying fighter jets and ordered that other combat duties be opened to them.
"It's incredible. I never thought I would be in the first class that this would happen to," says Julie Stopha, a 21-year-old senior from Bolivar, N.Y., one of 12 women to win coveted pilot billets.
For Ms. Stopha and other women who want to become Navy aviators, the sweeping changes will have an immediate effect. They will participate in all phases of training in flight school at Pensacola, Fla., including the aerial combat maneuvers made famous by the movie "Top Gun."
"I think it's going to be a big challenge, but it's exciting," Ms. Stopha says. "Now women can become part of the team."
The Navy plans to have up to 25 female pilots in combat jobs by next April. Another 500 women will be assigned to warships as soon as Congress repeals a 1948 law restricting women from serving on them, Navy officials say.
"All our flight training will be gender neutral," says Lt. Dan Bates, a Navy personnel spokesman. Four new classes of ships also will open up once Congress formally repeals the ban, giving Navy women even more flexibility in their careers and the battle experience that hastens promotions, he says.
Most of the 91 women graduating from the academy this year chose general, unrestricted duty, says Capt. Sandy Coward, the director of admissions who advises a women's professional group. Next year, he expects a dramatic change.
A poll conducted by the academy found that the majority of female midshipmen would choose to fly or work on surface warfare ships, he says. Fewer would choose intelligence and supply positions.
Denise L. Chatfield, 22, remembers when she was a freshman, half her classmates, including the women, wanted to be fighter pilots. "Everybody had seen 'Top Gun' and thought it would be really cool."
Ever since the first women graduated from the academy in 1980, senior women have picked their positions from a separate list than their male classmates.
The lifting of combat restrictions caps off a tumultuous four years of changes for women at the academy that were launched in December 1989 when a female midshipman was handcuffed to a urinal, then photographed and jeered by male classmates.
Since then, the atmosphere has improved and the integration of women has increased steadily, with two women leading the brigade in recent years, midshipmen say. The school now has a "zero tolerance" policy toward sexual harassment and has altered freshman induction rituals to prohibit hazing.
Applications from women candidates are up 10 percent this year, Captain Coward says, and could rise even more with the end of combat restrictions.
Like Midshipman Stopha, Ms. Chatfield says she never expected to be on the forefront of social change.
Growing up in a nonmilitary family in suburban Chicago, she thought of planes only as transportation. But, after flying with a squadron tracking submarines one summer at the academy, she decided she wanted to be a pilot.
She considers herself lucky to be one of the select few women heading to flight school. Although she has reservations about lifting the ban on women in hand-to-hand combat, she believes they can do the same job as men in planes.
"It gives women the opportunity to compete in the same field," she says. "I definitely agree with that. I think women can handle fighter aircraft as well as men. There are no questions physically like in some other areas."
Midshipman Stopha, who has dreamed of becoming a pilot since she was a teen-ager, thinks she wants to fly helicopters.
Asked if she's ready for combat, she doesn't hesitate. "I'm ready and willing. That's why we're here."