SAN DIEGO -- A Navy officer who will become the first woman to command a U.S. ship said Wednesday she and other female sailors are eager to shatter another military barrier and assume combat duty.
Cmdr. Deborah S. Gernes, the first woman declared eligible for assignment as a commanding officer, told a news conference she expects to receive a command within three years.
Gernes, one of six female Navy executive officers, will take the helm of a support ship when her turn comes, a historic promotion she said will help open up the top ranks to other women.
'I think it's definitely a step forward and I sincerely hope the women behind me, the other five executive officers right now, will shortly be screened for command,' she said.
Gernes, 39, was informed in December that a Navy selection board, after screening candidates on experience and training, cleared her and 86 male officers for ship command.
Unlike her male counterparts, Gernes will not be eligible to command a combat ship because federal law bars women from combat.
A previous law barring women from service at sea was dropped in 1973 and Gernes said she hopes the no-combat law will eventually be scrapped.
'Most women in the Navy would like to see the law concerning the limitations of women on combat ships changed. Most of us feel we have greater contributions to make and we could make them on combat ships,' she said.
Gernes will next be assigned as an instructor of commanding officers in Newport, R.I.
A native of Norwood, Mass., Gernes has 16 years of active duty, including stints on support ships in the Western Pacific and the North Arabian Sea.
She is executive officer on the USS Cape Cod, a San Diego-based tender, or repair ship, with a crew of 1,300.
Her tenure as second-in-command aboard the Cape Cod has prepared her for assuming a command post, she said.
'You have to worry about maintaining your ship, maintaining discipline and morale, making sure your ship meets all its commitments, making sure all dependents are taken care of. It's a chance to really show what you can do,' she said.
The 5-foot-2 officer said she is slightly embarrassed by all the attention her pending promotion has gotten. 'You feel as though everybody is watching you when you're the first,' Gernes said.
But she said her gender has not been a factor in her service as executive officer and she does not expect it will affect her command.
'Men and women interact as friends and as co-workers. They have to depend on each other in terms of emergencies and they do that very well,' she said.
Asked if ships will have to be revamped to add toilets and other private facilities for women, Gernes grimaced and said, 'We do what you do at home. When somebody's in (the bathroom), they lock the door.'