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Meet the USS Constitution's first woman commander

Cmdr. Billie J. Farrell standing on the deck of the USS Constitution in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Cmdr. Billie J. Farrell standing on the deck of the USS Constitution in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

One of Boston’s most popular tourist attractions is under a new command.

The USS Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides for the fabled way cannonballs used to bounce off its sides, is the Navy’s oldest commissioned ship still in operation today. For 224 years, the Constitution was commanded by men. That changes on Friday.

Cmdr. Billie J. Farrell takes command of Old Ironsides and its 80 crew members. She’s 39 years old, originally from Kentucky, and has been a commissioned Navy officer for nearly 18 years.

She sat down with WBUR’s Morning Edition host Rupa Shenoy to talk in the captain’s office of the ship.

Interview Highlights

On how she got her start: 

“I saw a Naval Academy graduation on TV when I was in the sixth grade. And I immediately told my parents that’s where I was going to go to school, immediately drawn to the traditions and the kind of the customs and everything that I saw on TV. Then started doing the research and realized it was a great education, provided great opportunity after graduation for a job and a chance to serve my country. So I stayed on that path. I’m just super excited to be here and to get the opportunity to serve as the commanding officer of USS Constitution. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. There’s only 76 other people in history that have had the job, and I’m just so thrilled to be here.”

On being the first woman in this role:

“It just came along with it. I wasn’t really surprised. Obviously, when I started looking into the opportunity, I kind of put two and two together and realized I would be the first woman commanding officer here, but I really was just drawn into the opportunity and the chance to be a part of history, which is the entire ship. It’s, you know, this moment, but it’s also the 224 years that this ship has represented the Navy and the country. It’s been here through the founding — you know, it was ordered under President George Washington, commissioned under President John Adams — and so just names that are usually only seen in history books, you get to actually see it and feel it when you walk on board the ship.”

On transitioning from her previous career to this role:

“I’m a surface warfare officer by trade in the Navy. So all my career has been on ships, but they’ve all been on guided missile cruisers. So dealing with agents, weapons systems and modern technology. … I’ve done multiple deployments on those guided missile cruisers. This is just a great opportunity, though, to again tie back to that heritage of where our Navy started; to bring the modern and the historic together and bridge that and serve as a representative to share that story.”

On daily life in the Navy vs. on a historical ship:

“So part of it goes back to those basics with sailors. So we still have to be able to make sure that the sailors can accomplish the missions of today. And then they have to also face the challenges that come with the ship that is 224 years old. So we do sail training where they actually climb the mast and learn how to rig the sails. We do gun drills and all the things that would have happened 224 years ago.”

On what you learn by seeing the way things were done back in the day:

“I think across the board it goes to a lot of the same things we focus on today: attention to detail, hard work, dedication, training. Those are all still skillsets that we look at, no matter what a sailors rate is or how long they’ve been in the Navy, that’s a skillset they have to have. And so it just challenges them in a different way. And it’s something that then when they leave here, they’re able to take it to their next command in the Navy or outside the Navy if they decide to leave and just share the story of how amazing it was to be a sailor on USS Constitution.”

On if anything will change with the first woman running the ship:

“Day to day operations of the ship are not going to change at all based on on gender or anything else. So I’m a sailor first. I’m a naval officer first and I’m happy to be here and to provide that story. We have so few things left where you actually get to set foot on it and touch it and see history itself. I think there was a tour group a few weeks ago where I was talking to some children and one of them said, ‘No, it’s a replica.’ I said, ‘No, it’s not. This is the actual ship.’ And then to see their response to that was just a kind of special feeling. I have two small children, so it’s great for me to be able to share that with them and connect the things that my first grade son is learning. When he talks about George Washington and saying, you know, ‘Hey, where mom works now, this ship was ordered to be built when he was president,’ and tying that all together.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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