Holly Graf was booted as commander of a warship in 2010 for “cruelty and maltreatment” of her 400-member crew. According to the inspector general, Graf was the closest thing the U.S. Navy has seen to a female Captain Bligh.
Graf’s dark side emerged when she became executive officer of the destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur in 1997. In 2003, Graf made U.S. naval history as the first female commander of a destroyer, the Churchill. A chaplain spoke with her about the lowest morale he’d seen in visits to more than 200 ships. She went “bonkers” and refused to speak with him.
In 2008, she assumed command of the USS Cowpens. Instead of using the direct language of command, Graf chose profanity and humiliation, failing to train the people she belittled.
Graf was sidelined and given an honorable retirement in 2012, but questions remain: How did the Navy miss her toxic behavior? Was she set up to fail?
Nicole Waybright, an officer who served with Graf on the Curtis Wilbur, thinks the Navy felt pressure to promote women, so it “put her on the best and most complicated tactical platform.”
But Graf had neither the temperament nor the experience for the job. “She was a terrible ship handler,” Waybright says.
Others are less forgiving. Shawn Smith, a retired Navy captain, is appalled and angry over the fate of young officers like her daughter who left the Navy after serving under Graf. “These kids,” she says, “did not deserve this kind of.”
Bottom line: Never rush promotions.
— Adapted from “The Rise and Fall of a Female Captain Bligh,” Mark Thompson, Time.
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