It should have been clear to the U.S. Navy that Holly Graf wasn't fit for command when her destroyer steamed out of a Sicilian port in 2003 on the eve of the Iraq war. Without warning, all 9,000 tons of the U.S.S. Winston S. Churchill shuddered as it cleared the harbor's breakwater. The screws stopped turning, and the 511-ft.-long ship was soon adrift. "What the hell happened?" Commander Graf demanded from the bridge. She grabbed her cowering navigator and pulled him onto the outdoor bridge wing. "Did you run my f___ing ship aground?" she screamed. Not only was this a possible naval disaster, but it was a diplomatic one as well: the navigator was an officer in the British Royal Navy, a billet unique to the Churchill.
But amid all the chaos and shouting, the sound heard next was more startling. Sailors on the Churchill's stern, suspecting that their ship had run aground meaning Graf's career would be instantly over broke gleefully into song: "Ding dong, the witch is dead!" Newly arrived Navy chaplain Maurice Kaprow could not believe what he was seeing and hearing. "Someone came up to me and said, 'We've run aground she's finished,' " he recalls. "I was flabbergasted. They were jumping for joy and singing on the fantail." As it turned out, one of the ship's propellers had broken. But seven years later, Kaprow still cannot fathom which was worse: that U.S. sailors were openly heckling a captain or that the captain seemed to deserve it.
Graf's next command, as captain of the guided-missile cruiser U.S.S. Cowpens, would be her last. Graf was relieved of duty in January, after nearly two years on the Cowpens, for "cruelty and maltreatment" of her crew, according to a blistering Navy inspector general's report obtained by TIME. The report has rocked the service to its bilges because it calls into question the way the Navy chooses, promotes and then monitors its handpicked skippers. The saga of Holly Graf suggests the Navy had long ignored warning signs about her suitability for command. And while news of her spectacular fall instantly raised questions about institutional sexism, the lesson may be the opposite, as her case highlights how the Navy has pushed to integrate women into its war-fighting fleet.
Master and Commander
Holly Graf had dreamed of skippering a Navy vessel ever since her high school days in Simsbury, Conn. Her father was a Navy captain, and her sister Robin wanted to go to sea too. (Robin eventually became an admiral and married one; Holly is single.) After she graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1985, colleagues sensed that Graf was on a fast track to flag rank.
Graf alternated tours aboard a destroyer tender, a frigate and a destroyer with shore assignments at the Pentagon and as a Navy ROTC instructor at Villanova University, outside Philadelphia. She earned a Bronze Star during the Iraq war (along with the Legion of Merit, Defense Meritorious Service Medal and two Meritorious Service Medals). Adding some academic heft to her résumé, Graf earned three master's degrees in national security from the Naval War College, in civil engineering from Villanova and in systems analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School. Early in her career, there were few signs of the abusive commander she would become. "I knew Holly a long time ago," wrote one acquaintance on a naval blog last week. "My memory of her is nothing like how the posts on this and other boards are portraying her."
Graf's darker side began to emerge when she was assigned to the destroyer U.S.S. Curtis Wilbur in 1997, as the executive officer (XO), or second in command. Kirk Benson, who retired from the Navy as a commander after a 20-year career, says his tour aboard the Curtis Wilbur with Graf was "the worst time in my life." Her constant berating of the crew led him to complain, he says, but nothing was done. "When I think of Holly Graf, even 12 years later, I shake," says Benson. "It was hard to imagine her as an XO, never mind getting command of two ships."
If the Navy had warning signs about Graf after her time on the Curtis Wilbur, it didn't seem to pay them any heed. Instead, in 2003, Graf made U.S. Navy history by becoming the first female commander of a destroyer, the Churchill. Kaprow, the Jewish chaplain, recalls his time aboard the Churchill in 2003 as the strangest of more than 200 such visits to ships in his 20-year career. Morale was the lowest he had ever encountered on any vessel. Kaprow says he tried to talk to Graf about her leadership style after 10 days aboard. "I told her, 'I'm getting some vibes you're a nice lady, and you have a hard job' I'm telling her some of the junior officers are concerned and are really upset," Kaprow recalls. "I'm giving her the spiel, and she just goes bonkers and cuts me off. She said she didn't want to talk about it." Kaprow says she wouldn't talk to him for the rest of his stay.