The USS Sierra rests comfortably at the naval base here in Charleston, moored most of the time to Pier Papa. She is a motherly old girl who has been tending naval ships for more than 40 years. The Sierra is 531 feet long and 73 feet "at her generous beam -- not nearly so dashing as the destroyer John Rogers nearby -- and to the casual visitor she is just one more ship in the fleet.
But the casual visitor blinks. Who are those sailors chipping paint? Who are the two crew members with welding torches? Who is the tall blond navigator at the quartermaster's charts?
Women, that's who. Three of Sierra's 35 officers and 100 of her 811 enlisted personnel are women. The tall blond is Laura Booher, 27, of Cincinnati, who came into the Navy in 1982 and just signed on for another hitch.
Some interesting things are happening to the armed services. Once they relegated women to billets as nurses or clerical workers. Today women constitute about 10 percent of total personnel -- 76,000 in the Army, 66,000 in the Air Force, 48,600 in the Navy, 9,000 in the Marines. The law still prohibits women from serving in combat, but short of combat they are doing almost everything else.
The Navy's experience goes back to the formation of the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps in 1908. During World War I, 11,000 "yeomanettes" served at shore stations. World War II saw the Women's Auxiliary Reserve, better known as the WAVES. They numbered 86,000 at peak strength, but within months after the war ended the women's reserve was virtually disbanded. Then interest in women's role revived; the 1970s brought a widespread movement toward women's liberation, and the Navy saw an opportunity to strike a blow for progress.
Today the Navy counts in its enlisted ranks almost 42,000 young women like Laura Booher. Born in northern Kentucky, she completed high school, served for a time as a waitress, took a course in dental technology and went to work in Cincinnati as a dentist's assistant. She doesn't want to knock dentistry, but at 24 she was bored and restless and curious about a world that was wider than right and left molars. She talked to a Navy recruiter. He promised her a chance to earn a rating as a meteorologist. She held up her hand and went off to Orlando for nine weeks of basic.
Those nine weeks were followed by two months of training in Illinois and by a 15-month assignment to a weather station on Guam. She loved it. Then came an assignment to the Sierra in Charleston, where she learned the additional skills of navigation. This month she takes on a new assignment in Suitland, Md., where she will be working in oceanography. She is a petty officer, second class, with a base pay of $11,748 a year -- plus perks. It beats bicuspids.
The Navy now has women in scores of ratings ashore and at sea. Roughly 6,000 enlisted women are in naval aviation. Thirty-four ships include women officers. Women are serving on repair ships such as the Sierra; they are serving on ordnance disposal teams; they are manning air traffic control positions; they are serving as lawyers, doctors, nurses, cooks and technicians.
There are problems. Some women join the Navy primarily to get away from home or to get a husband. Some of them get homesick and some get pregnant. No matter how everyone is exhorted to "think team," a sexual tension is always present. Aboard ship few women can handle the heavy weights that go with taking on stores. The Navy has not asked Congress to repeal the law that prohibits the permanent assignment of women to warships. Not all things are equal.
Yet the future is bright for women in service. The pool of 18-to 22-year-old males is dwindling at the same time the Navy is tightening its requirements for intelligence and character. The Navy is competing for the same high school and college graduates that the private sector wants, and no one in the private sector has to serve watch or sleep in a three- tiered bunk.
If the armed services are to be kept at full strength in these competitive times, such incentives as a pay raise must be offered, or strength levels must be reduced. A third alternative is to enlarge the role for women. It's going to happen.