Commandant, first woman at No. 2 slot, begins today

Called `warrior,' `unflappable,' captain also receiving some static

December 15, 2006|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,SUN REPORTER

Capt. Margaret Klein, who takes command today as the first woman in the No. 2 post at the Naval Academy, may be watched and scrutinized in ways that her 80 male predecessors were not.

Known as a tough officer with impeccable "warrior" credentials and a sense of humor, Klein has been received warmly by midshipmen, faculty and officers at the 161-year-old military college, as well as by its civilian oversight panel.

But some old-guard alumni have been less than cordial to Klein, who graduated in the second class of women to be admitted at the academy. One member of the class of 1945 says her appointment as commandant, overseeing the military training of all 4,200 midshipmen, represents a further "feminization" at the academy.

She was selected by Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the superintendent, who has found himself in the center of a 30-year-old debate over what role women should play at the academy. During his tenure, he's aggressively sought to stamp out sexual misconduct, most notably by prosecuting a football captain on rape charges, and trying to boost female enrollment to 20 percent.

Friends and colleagues expect her to ignore any questions about her gender, as she has throughout her career, and to be a strong and visible presence at the academy.

Wendy Lawrence, a former astronaut and classmate of Klein, said questions about gender are "not important."

"I was the first female Naval Academy graduate to become an astronaut, but quite frankly, I never paid any attention to stuff like that, and I'm sure Peg would say the same thing," she said. "Her record got her the job, and not whether she was male, female, black, white, green, tall or short. And based on her record, I know she'll do a great job."

An academy spokesman said that Klein declined to be interviewed for this article and that Rempt was unavailable.

Klein, 49, grew up in Weymouth, Mass., the oldest of four girls. She caught "the flying bug" when she was 12, often going up on Saturdays with her father, a pilot and Navy reservist, according to a 2005 story in The Oklahoman.

She arrived at the academy in 1977, a landmark time in its history, when female midshipmen faced taunting and other harassment from men who didn't think they belonged. Klein, who earned a bachelor's degree in oceanography, told The Oklahoman she didn't run into problems.

"I'm sure there were gender issues, but they were invisible to me," she said in the article. "I had great classmates and great friends, both men and women."

Both of her parents died shortly after her 1981 graduation, forcing her to help look after her younger sisters and, friends said, giving her a steely resolve.

In 1983, Klein became one of the first female naval flight officers, assigned to an air-reconnaissance squadron. She served three operational tours flying in the EC-130Q Hercules and the E-6A Mercury, commanding the squadron in her final tour.

Much of her career has been spent with these squadrons and working on the communications operation that surrounds them. The Strategic Communication Wing 1, which she commanded last year at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, allows the president and other national authorities to control ballistic missiles on submarines, air bombers and land-based missile sites.

In addition, Klein has served as chief of staff to the commander of a carrier strike group, reaching the academy after returning from a deployment aboard the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Capt. Nora Tyson, Klein's roommate in flight school and a close friend ever since, said Klein was "unflappable and had an even keel."

Tyson, an executive assistant to the chief of naval operations, recalled one occasion in 1982 when her friend was put in the "halo docker," a training exercise for all pilots that forces a few trainees, blindfolded, to swim out of a pool after a simulated helicopter crash.

"Everybody else had already swam up, and Peggy was down there tooling around, wandering around down there swimming in the pool," Tyson said. When divers went in to get her, she came out and joked, according to Tyson: "I had tons of air down there. I could have stayed down there all day."

Klein also served in the White House Military Office and as a Brookings Legislative Fellow in 1997 for Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, advising her on military matters.

Capt. Mark Guadagnini, who commands the Navy's aviation human resources division in Millington, Tenn., and has worked closely with Klein at various stages in her career, said Klein would make an "incredible" commandant.

At a briefing on a policy change that would give pilots less time in the cockpit, Guadagnini remembered how well Klein handled the officers in her charge, when "a lot of consternation and backtalk was breaking out amongst the crowd."

"Peg listened to everything everyone said, and she was expert at defusing the situation and coming up with very thoughtful responses to what people were saying," he said.

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