USS Opportune is opportunity and challenge for the skipper, Darlene Iskra

November 02, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

NORFOLK, Va. -- Darlene Iskra, a steaming mug of coffee in her hand, sits in the wardroom of the salvage ship USS Opportune and grins as she talks about the challenges of being the Navy's first female skipper.

"I think I swear more than they do," she said of her virtually all-male crew. "Some of my sailors actually have told me that they'd prefer I don't swear -- so that's kind of embarrassing!"

In this and in many other ways, the wiry 40-year-old lieutenant commander is trying to show that women can move easily into key jobs in the military. As a presidential commission votes this week on whether to recommend sending women into combat, Commander Iskra says she's hoping that she and her female colleagues will get a chance to serve aboard -- and someday command -- warships.

"We're shrinking the Navy, but we want to keep the people who can do the job the best," she said Friday as a thick Atlantic fog shrouded the gray hulk of the Opportune, which she has commanded for almost two years. "Why are we barring half the population from even trying?"

Fewer than one of every six women in the Navy -- 8,800 of 58,000 -- is at sea now, less than half the rate for men. That's because Congress bars women from serving aboard combat ships, such as aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and submarines, and restricts them to support vessels, such as oilers, tankers and tenders.

Commander Iskra assumed her historic command quietly, on the eve of the Persian Gulf War nearly two years ago. Because of the war, and because she took over suddenly in Italy after the previous skipper fell ill, her ascension has been little noted.

"I was scared to death," she recalled, "afraid we were gonna crash the ship into something," as she ordered it out of Naples. "It was an unfamiliar harbor, but once we got out to sea, I felt pretty good, because other than running into another ship, there wasn't much that could go wrong."

The Opportune spent the next several months steaming in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, ready to clear mines or sunken ships from the vital Suez Canal.

Members of her crew admitted that they were concerned at first about serving under a woman, but now say they have no qualms. Several said they now endorse putting women aboard combat vessels.

"It's not a matter of being male or female," Jason Webster, 23, an enlisted navigator from Nashville, Tenn., said from his desk in the chart room. "If they're capable, they should be there, even on a warship."

Lt. Dave Randall of Panama City, Fla., the ship's second-in-command, said: "As far as the crew and I are concerned, Commander Iskra's first name is 'Captain.' There is no difference."

Commander Iskra, a California native, is small and compact, a diver like her father. She said her husband, Lt. Cmdr. Marc J. Thomas, a Navy SEAL commando, is "very supportive" of her job. Aboard the 213-foot, 2,000-ton Opportune, built at the end of World War II, privacy is often a problem. The crew's bunks line common passageways. "We don't want a crew member getting dressed out here with his bare rear when I come by," Commander Iskra said.

There are more daunting concerns.

"There's a perception that women need to be more morally pure than men and that part of the problem with women on ships is that suddenly you'll have these Jezebels stealing husbands or fornicating all over the ship," she said.

Such concerns are especially real for Navy wives, and shipboard sex could be a problem, she acknowledged.

"Few 18-year-olds are very mature, their hormones are raging, and they're going to do stupid things," Commander Iskra said. "When you add women to the equation, you start having problems like unintended pregnancies."

Commander Iskra grew somber at the mention of the Tailhook scandal, in which at least 26 women, many of them Navy officers, were molested last year by drunken Navy pilots at a Las Vegas hotel.

"I was really disappointed," she said. "I'm in an elite community, too -- divers have the reputation for being wild and crazy -- and I'd just be devastated if anything like that happened to me."

But she also believes Tailhook has been blown out of proportion, and she trusts that it will serve as a catalyst. "The attitudes," she said, just have to change."

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