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McLure is one of five women currently in command of a U.S. Navy combat ship.

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Esther McClure was eight when her family drove her grandparents to Galveston so they could board a tramp freighter to Africa, where they were medical missionaries.

“I thought that grubby old ship was very mysterious and scary in a cool kind of way,” she recalls. “But it never occurred to me that I myself might go to sea one day. That was something boys did in adventure stories.”

But time and career choices have rewritten those stories. Today McClure is the commander of the USS Arleigh Burke. When she took command last spring in a ceremony witnessed by 300 crewmembers and 45 officers, she became one of five women currently in command of a U.S. Navy combat ship. At 504-feet long and 8,600 tons displacement, the USS Arleigh Burke is a guided missile destroyer capable of air defense, anti-submarine warfare, gunnery, and land attack or strike missions.

“It goes to show how much the Navy has changed and how far women have come in the 18 years since I joined, when the only ship I was allowed to embark on was a repair ship,” she said. “But I made two deployments to the Persian Gulf on that ship, one in support of Operation Earnest Will when we were escorting the Kuwaiti ships during the Iran-Iraq ‘tanker wars,’ and another during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. After that, I knew it was just a matter of time before Congress would change the law and all shipboard jobs would open to women. I knew I loved going to sea and wanted the challenge and opportunity provided by jobs aboard combatants.”

McClure has traveled the world. “I’ve been just about anywhere you can pull in a deep-draft ship,” she says, noting that a ship at sea is a world unto itself with its own regulations, rules, and traditions. “We stand watches around the clock seven days a week, and it’s not uncommon for a ship to spend 60 to 70 days continuously at sea in operations in the global war on terrorism.”

Of course, Navy life isn’t spent entirely at sea. Often waiting on the pier is McClure’s husband, Ernest Lilley. A former director of information systems for New Jersey-based Synaptic Pharmaceutical Corp., he gave up the stationary life to join in McClure’s adventure in the Navy. He is currently a freelance journalist writing about mobile computing and communications (he supplied the photos for this story).

McClure’s shore tours included a stint teaching new ensigns at the Surface Warfare Officer Division in Newport, R.I. While teaching there, McClure decided to go back to school herself, enrolling in URI’s Graduate Program in Marine Affairs.

“I had always been curious about the non-military ships I saw at sea—LNG tankers, container ships, break-bulk tramp freighters in third-world ports,” she explained. “I wanted to learn how commercial ports are managed, and to learn about the maritime industry as a whole. URI’s program enabled me to cover a wide variety of topics—everything from admiralty law to oceanography to the economics of fisheries management.

My classmates came from a wide variety of maritime professions—we had fishermen, Coast Guard officers, even a fellow from the American Bureau of Shipping. It was a great cross-section of professionals. Sometimes we learned as much from each other in classroom discussions as we did from our reading assignments. There was also a great program of guest lectures that brought in notable speakers from many different maritime fields. And the classes were at night, which enabled me to continue with my Navy career while getting my degree. It was great preparation for my current role as commanding officer.”

Lawrence Juda, chair of the Department of Marine Affairs, remembers his former student. “She was very bright, very competent. She was like a sponge, soaking up knowledge and sharing her own perspectives. It was a pleasure to have her in classes in Newport and in Kingston.”

Juda recalls that McClure’s major paper focused on the Persian Gulf oil spill and the environmental damages caused by the military hostilities. “It was solid and well researched,” he says.

That ability to write well reasoned articles has stood McClure in good stead throughout her career, whether it’s writing briefs on space warfare or a how to guide for the finer points of ship handling in the Mediterranean.

The Arleigh Burke is expected to be in homeport, Norfolk, Va., during December. “It’s impossible to predict a ship’s schedule too far in advance,” the commander says. “Since we go ‘forward from the sea’ rather than from a base in another country, we can be sent anywhere, anytime on little notice and be gone for months, which makes the Navy so useful to the country.”

So what’s on the horizon for the high-ranking sailor? “Unlike the five year mission of the Enterprise on Star Trek, which I avidly watched when I was young, ship command tours last about 18 months,” she says. “While it’s the most challenging and rewarding thing I’ve done in my life, I know the Navy will find lots of other interesting things for me to do after my change of command ceremony next year.”

McClure isn’t the only sailor in the family. Her younger brother is also a Navy commander. “He’s a submariner, and I’m a surface sailor, which ensures lively debates at family get-togethers,” she says.

By Ensign William C. Daly, USS Arleigh Burke and Jan Wenzel ’87

Photo by Ernest Lilley

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