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The Rise and Fall of a Female Captain Bligh



Women are so common in the upper ranks of the U.S. military these days that it's no longer news when they break through another barrier. Unfortunately, the latest benchmark isn't one to brag about: being booted as captain of a billion-dollar warship for "cruelty and maltreatment" of her 400-member crew. According to the Navy inspector general's report that triggered her removal — and the accounts of officers who served with her — Captain Holly Graf was the closest thing the U.S. Navy had to a female Captain Bligh.

A Navy admiral stripped Graf of her command of the Japan-based guided missile cruiser U.S.S. Cowpens in January. The just-released IG report concludes that Graf "repeatedly verbally abused her crew and committed assault" and accuses her of using her position as commander of the Cowpens "for personal gain." But old Navy hands tell TIME that those charges, substantiated in the IG report, came about because of the poisonous atmosphere she created aboard her ship.

The case has attracted wide notice inside the Navy and on Navy blogs, where her removal has generated cheers from those who had served with her since she graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1985. While many denounced Graf, even greater anger seems directed at the Navy brass for promoting such an officer to positions of ever-increasing responsibility. Graf declined an interview request.

While in command at sea — where a captain's word is law and she or he has the power to make or break careers — Graf swore like, well, a sailor. She "creates an environment of fear and hostility [and] frequently humiliates and belittles watch standers by screaming at them with profanities in front of the Combat Information Center and bridge-watch teams," a crew member told the IG. According to 29 of the 36 crew members who were questioned for the Navy's report, Graf repeatedly dropped F bombs on them. "Take your goddam attitude and shove it up your f______ ass and leave it there," she allegedly told an officer during a stressful maneuver aboard the 567-ft., 10,000-ton vessel.

Junior officers seeking her guidance were rebuffed. "This is one of the reasons I hate you," she allegedly told one who was seeking her help. When another officer visited her quarters to discuss an earlier heated discussion, her response was terse: "Get the f___ out of my stateroom." She allegedly told a male officer, "The only words I want to hear out of your mouth are 'Yes ma'am' or 'You're correct, ma'am.' " She also allegedly put a "well-respected master chief" in "time out" — standing in the ship's key control room doing nothing — "in front of other watch standers of all ranks."

While most of the witness statements contained in the IG report didn't specify whether the person testifying was male or female, the IG asked at least two female officers whether they viewed Graf as a role model. A younger woman recalled going to Graf to seek her help. " 'Don't come to me with your problems,' " she said, quoting Graf. " 'You're a f______ department head.' " The officer also said that Graf once told her, "I can't express how mad you make me without getting violent."

A second female officer told the IG that Graf was a "terrible role model for women in the Navy," alleging that Graf once told her and a fellow officer on the bridge, "You two are f______ unbelievable. I would fire you if I could, but I can't."

The IG investigation, triggered last June by three anonymous complaints, noted that while interviews were being conducted over Graf's conduct at the Yokosuka Navy base outside Tokyo, four crew members provided "unsolicited written statements concerning what they perceived as abuse." While curses are not uncommon aboard Navy vessels, to have them repeatedly brandished like clubs against subordinates — especially in front of more junior crew members — is unusual. TIME obtained a copy of the IG report, from which names had been deleted, under the Freedom of Information Act.

Graf told the IG she had "no recollection" of making such comments, and the report says she "appeared incredulous at the accusations." She "repeatedly" emphasized her "very high standards for [her] crew" and "repeatedly" spoke of a "groupthink mentality" aboard her vessel. Graf said a "small group of disgruntled officers in the Cowpens wardroom were spreading rumors throughout the crew and convincing others that the command climate and [her] demeanor were far worse than they actually were." But she followed up with an e-mail. "Many times I raised my tone (and used swear words) to ensure they knew this times, it was no kidding," she wrote. "I also did it on other occasions to intentionally pressurize the situation."

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