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COMBAT SHIP IS ON EVEN KEEL AS NAVY MEN, WOMEN ADJUST

SHARE COMBAT SHIP IS ON EVEN KEEL AS NAVY MEN, WOMEN ADJUST

Gone are the days when sailors jogged bare-chested on the deck of the USS Eisenhower and the only women around were in photos from home. Now, the ship's store carries bras and pink razors alongside the Jockey shorts and after-shave.

In March, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier became the Navy's first combat ship with permanent full-time female crew members when 100 women came aboard. Dozens more are on the way; and by October, when the ship sets sail for a six-month tour in the Mideast, it is expected to have about 500 women among its 6,000 crew members.They're holding jobs from bomb handlers to combat jet pilots, learning the ropes on a ship that requires 24-hour-a-day cooperation.

And it's clear the message has gotten through: Adjust, or choose another line of work.

"A chief is a chief is a chief," says Chief Petty Officer Mary Brackett, who wears the kelly green turtleneck that identifies her as one of the dozens of crash-helmeted figures who scurry about tending to the huge jets that come screaming down on the carrier's 4.5-acre flight deck.

Brackett and several other women said they find the men welcome them on board after they prove they've got enough experience to show they are capable of doing their jobs.

"My khakis tell them I'm a chief petty officer," Brackett said. "I've already proven myself, so they accepted me as a shipmate."

The ship was conducting training exercises off the coast of Puerto Rico when it played host to Defense Secretary William Perry over the weekend.

During several hours of briefings with crew members, Perry said, he'd "seen no evidence of any problem that can't be ironed out."

He said the ship has successfully built separate quarters for men and women, but a problem still exists with putting women on submarines, given their limited space.

"But there's no reason why it can't be done," Perry said.

Seven more combat ships are to take on female crew members this year. Women already serve on more than 60 noncombat ships.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Janet Michaud, a 21-year Navy veteran who readies jets for their surging catapult ride off the Eisenhower, said gender makes no difference on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

"Out there on the flight deck, you're wearing the same clothes as a man, you do the same work, and no one knows the difference," she said.

Machinist mate Anthony Hall said the integration has caused little disruption. He said training courses preparing for the change have been numerous.

"Overkill, I'd say, because it just amounts to common sense - don't look down on people, treat them well, and you're OK," he said.

"Experiment" is not a word the ship's commander, Capt. Mark Gemill, cares to use to describe what is happening on the Eisen-hower.

"The Navy doesn't need experiments with women at sea. We know how to do it and we know how to handle the issues," he said, noting that women have been serving on noncombat ships since 1978.

Gemill, who was the captain of a supply ship that made two deployments to the Persian Gulf during the war with Iraq with women as part of his crew, appears unconcerned about possibly of having to deal with such sensitive issues as sexual harassment or shipboard romances.

"Sexual activity (among crew members) is not good for good order and discipline," he said. "We do have good common sense."