ABOARD THE USS EISENHOWER -- After six months at sea, the Navy's first "coed" combat ship returns home today, with a success story to tell and another military barrier seemingly smashed.
Traditionalists predicted last year that allowing women to serve with men on the nuclear-powered carrier Eisenhower was a disaster waiting to happen.
The ship had its share of problems -- including a rash of pregnancies and a videotaped sexual encounter between two sailors.
But male and female crew members say the past six months have seen mostly smooth sailing.
The Eisenhower never saw combat but it came close, with roles in the American military actions in and around Haiti, Kuwait and Bosnia.
Throughout the deployment, the 400 women in a ship's crew of 5,000 shared all the jobs -- piloting jet combat aircraft, serving as firefighters and, in the case of one woman, keeping the ship's nuclear power plant running, one of the most crucial jobs on the ship.
Master Chief Cecilia Daley spent 18 years in the Navy waiting for a chance to use her skills at sea. While women have served on noncombatant vessels since 1978, Master Chief Daley and her training in weapons were not employed at sea until last year, when the Navy changed its policy.
"I always said, 'Give me a chance to do it, and I'll go and do it,' " she said yesterday, taking a break from preparations for docking in the Eisenhower's home port of Norfolk, Va.
Master Chief Daley left her three children and husband, also a Navy chief, at home in Norfolk while she supervised a crew of 88 men and women in weapons handling, which includes storing, maintaining and loading ordinance such as bombs and missiles.
"I was apprehensive. It was so late in my career, and I had little ones at home," she said. "But I had to be the one to set the example."
The Navy flew members of the press to the ship yesterday to talk with the ship's officers and crew about the precedent-setting deployment.
Reporters had free access to crew members for an hour after interviews with selected officers who gave positive reports on the cruise.
The Eisenhower's commanding officer, Capt. Mark Gemmill, maintained that the ship's well-publicized problems were little more than a blip on the radar screen.
"We had some incidents and occurrences," he said. "They are absolutely insignificant compared to the wonderful things the crew did during deployment."
A male and a female sailor who videotaped themselves having sex on board the Eisenhower (and later showed the tape to shipmates) were kicked out of the Navy, he said.
News reports that at least 15 crew members became pregnant prompted a flurry of gleeful sniping from critics who had warned that women didn't belong on combat vessels.
But most of those pregnancies occurred before the ship set sail, others on shore leave when the sailors were reunited with their husbands, Navy officials said.
Master Chief Daley and others say many of the pregnancies were deliberate acts by women who wanted no part of a six-month deployment.
Navy regulations allow women to serve aboard ship through the 20th week of pregnancy.
"There are still women who don't want to go to sea," she said. "That will just take time to change."
Women in the air
Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the Eisenhower deployment was permitting women for the first time to pilot the Navy's powerful combat jets from the ship's flight deck.
The operation hit a snag earlier this year when Lt. Shannon Workman of Cumberland, the first woman to qualify to fly combat jets, was transferred off the ship because she had trouble landing her EA-6B radar-jamming jet on the Eisenhower.
Although Lieutenant Workman, a 1988 Naval Academy graduate, made the headlines, a male pilot was also reassigned -- with no fanfare -- at the same time for further training.
Both transfers sit right with Lt. j.g. Kristin Dryfuse, an F-14 radar intercept officer who came aboard the Eisenhower in January.
"It's just one of those things where she didn't make it," said Lieutenant Dryfuse, who graduated from Annapolis in 1992.
"It would be unfair to keep her on this ship just because she's a woman. If you don't kick 'em off, someone will get killed."
Lieutenant Workman is being trained to pilot a Navy cargo plane, officials said.
Bringing women on board ship in combat roles, in addition to overcoming long military tradition, was a test of logistics.
The Navy rebuilt parts of the Eisenhower to prepare for women -- putting passageways through living spaces, for example, and adding women's bathrooms.
Doctors with training in gynecology were brought on board, and barbers were given some pointers on cutting women's hair.
Men were lectured on sexual harassment, and a brochure laid out what kinds of actions or words would put them in what the Navy called the "red zone."
"We told them if you treat someone the way you would treat your sister, brother, mother or father, you can't go wrong," said Capt. Doug Roulstone, the ship's No. 2 officer.
The warnings may have been too harsh, some sailors said.
"At first, they had been told so much about sexual harassment, they didn't want to talk to you," recalled Mae Cobb, a 22-year-old sailor from Panama City, Fla.
Diarra Davis, a sailor from Decatur, Ga., said he got used to women in the Navy when they were alongside him in boot camp and in advanced technical training.
Even so, he said the sexual harassment instruction taught him a lesson.
"You just can't talk to them the way you might want to," Mr. Davis, 20, said with a smile.
For Eric Johnson, a 22-year-old sailor from East Baltimore, the experience of serving side by side with women on his first extended sea duty came down to a simple truth.
"To me, they basically hold their own," he said.