Kathleen McGrath, 50, a McLean resident and Navy captain who in 2000 became the first woman to take a U.S. warship to sea, died of lung cancer Sept. 26 at Bethesda Naval Medical Center. She had lived off and on in the Washington area since the 1990s.
Capt. McGrath commanded the USS Jarrett, a 453-foot frigate, in a mission to the Persian Gulf to stop oil smugglers. She made headlines with the voyage, adding to the debate over the role of women in the military.
Women had served in the Navy on support vessels since 1978, but it wasn't until 1994 that they were allowed on warships.
After an unlikely climb up the ranks, Capt. McGrath was one of five women selected in 1998 to command Navy combat ships; the other four wound up on amphibious transport vessels.
When asked about the significance of her command, she told Time magazine in 2000: "You don't get to this position by saying, 'I'm different and I'm special, so therefore I deserve to be the CO.' "
Her executive officer on the Jarrett told a reporter in 2000: "She's not in command because she's a woman. She's in command because she's better than everyone else who's not in command."
It was business as usual aboard ship during the difficult mission. Among the only major changes aboard was the removal of a spring-loaded toilet seat that was always in the up position.
Capt. McGrath, a native of Columbus, Ohio, was a forestry graduate of California State University at Sacramento and received a master's degree in education from Stanford University.
She called herself an "accidental Navy officer," saying she joined in 1980 on a whim after her six-year career with the U.S. Forestry Service grew boring.
She was standing watch on a Navy support vessel in the 1980s when she first thought to pursue the command of a ship. But she was told initially that she could not enroll in the required Surface Warfare Officers School.
She eventually secured a slot and served as commander of salvage ships, and later served in the Navy's personnel bureau.
Her last assignment, before retiring last month because of illness, was at the Joint Advanced Warfighting Program.
Survivors include her husband of 10 years, Greg Brandon, and their two children, Claire and Andrew Brandon, both of McLean; her parents, James and Martha McGrath of Sequim, Wash.; three sisters; and two brothers.