A caustic captain and a military muddle

March 15, 2010|By Susan Reimer

Capt. Holly Graf, a 1985 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who climbed quickly up the career ladder, was relieved of her command of the 10,000-ton guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens for bullying and mistreating junior officers and enlisted members of her crew.

Apparently, she swore like -- well, like a sailor -- but she also, according to a Navy inspector general's investigation, belittled, harangued and even physically assaulted her subordinates, creating a "poisonous" atmosphere not only aboard the Cowpens but aboard the USS Winston Churchill, her previous command.

The sailors and officers under her called her "Captain Bligh" and "Cruella De Vil," and broke into spontaneous cheering when her time was up on the Churchill. According to the IG's report, she spit in the face of subordinates and threw binders, ceramic coffee cups and wads of paper at them. She dropped F-bombs and said things to young women officers such as, "I can't express how mad you make me without getting violent." There is plenty more in the official report.

Her next assignment was to have been a top job at the Pentagon, but she has been instead banished to a Navy weapons lab in Virginia and is in danger of being booted out of the Navy altogether.

God bless the U.S. military, but it remains behind the rest of this country's institutions in dealing with women in authority. In this case, the Navy seems to have taken an inordinate amount of time deciding what to do with one when she was a bust.

The complaints against Captain Graf went unaddressed for an unusually long time, military observers have written, probably because there was a substantial investment in her success. She was pushed up the ladder long after it looks like she should have been pushed off of it. If anything, it appears, the Navy gave her too many chances.

And her behavior, getting huge attention on Navy blogs and in Navy chatter, according to Time magazine's Mark Thompson, means her failure is just as spectacular -- likely reinforcing stereotypes about women officers up and down the chain of command.

What is unclear is whether this tougher-than-thou persona was something Captain Graf felt she needed to adopt to reinforce her authority, or whether she was just a flat-out lousy leader.

It isn't uncommon for women in a man's world to overcompensate with foul language and to skate with their elbows out, as it were. Although Captain Graf almost certainly served under fine male commanders, without female role models it is hard for a woman to know how to make it work. The first women to do anything are usually making it up as they go.

Incidentally, Captain Graf was also caught "drag-racing" (if you can call 35 mph fast) with the destroyer USS John McCain in the Pacific, but that was not the reason she was relieved of her command.

"What is unsubstantiated," Pacific Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Jeff Davis told the New York Post, "is the allegation that [the race] constituted ... improperly hazarding a vessel."

Apparently, in the Navy, there is testosterone. And then there is testosterone.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays in the Baltimore Sun.

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