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First woman to command USS Constitution dreamed of being in the Navy since sixth grade

On Jan. 21, Billie J. Farrell will take over as the 77th Commander of the USS Constitution and become the first woman in that role.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

When Commander Billie J. Farrell saw her first Naval Academy graduation on TV in sixth grade, she said she knew that being in the Navy was her dream. And since she was named the first female commanding officer of the USS Constitution this week, that dream has taken on added significance.

“As I looked more into the [Naval Academy] itself and what they had to offer — both as a student and a graduate — I just became captivated on the opportunity to serve in the Navy,” Farrell said in a phone interview Wednesday, “and part of that was to travel the world but also a chance to serve.”


The USS Constitution’s public affairs office announced Tuesday that Farrell, 39, will be the first woman to hold the title of commanding officer aboard the historic warship. When Farrell officially takes the helm on Jan. 21, the Paducah, Ky. native will be the 77th officer to hold that title on the warship, an honor she’s achieved in her 18th year of Naval service.

She will relieve Commander John Benda, who served as the 76th commanding officer, according to a statement from the ship’s public affairs office.

“I feel honored to have been chosen as the first female [commanding officer] and blessed to be in this role,” she said. “I just really want to show that if somebody wants to do something within the Navy or elsewhere that there [are] always opportunities, and you just have to find them and work hard and set your sights on something and continue to push forward.”

The USS Constitution is a storied warship, dating back to 1797, according to the statement. The vessel played crucial roles in the War of 1812 and the Barbary Wars.

Farrell recently completed her sixth tour across three ships, during which she served as executive officer on the USS Vicksburg, a cruiser whose home port is in Norfolk, Va., she said. Now that she and her husband and two young children have moved to Boston, she said she is excited to get to work with the crew on the USS Constitution — also known as “Old Ironsides.”


Ironsides’ 80-person crew is typically younger, with most of them coming straight from boot camp, she said, and they are embarking on the ship as a special duty assignment.

“They are all excited to come here, which I think is amazing that they want to do this job,” she said. “It’s the oldest commissioned warship afloat, and they still find that to be an exciting part of the job.”

Farrell said she and her crew have all of the requirements of a regular Navy command because the ship is still in active commission. The work ranges from holding training sessions to help the crew, staying proficient in current Navy events, and acting as representatives for the ship and its story by giving tours to the public, she said.

“The ship is open for tours on a daily basis. We have sailors that give tours; the hours vary from season to season on days and hours that we are open,” she said. “And we do lots of community outreach ... just to share the story of the ship and the amazing piece of history that she is and how she ties into the importance of today’s Navy.”


Farrell said her upbringing was focused on service, with one of her parents being a police officer and the other a teacher. Her new role is her chance to continue to give back — something she said is of utmost importance to her.

“I’ve been very blessed in my life. … I was given a lot of opportunities, and I worked hard for them as well, but [public service] is just something that always spoke to me,” Farrell said. “And the Navy provided the venue for me to do that in a way that it’s been a blessing.”