On January 21, 2022, history was once again made on the decks of USS Constitution, America’s Ship of State. At twelve noon the change-of-command ceremony bid farewell to Cmdr. John Benda and welcomed Cmdr. Billie J. Farrell as the first female commanding officer in “Old Ironsides’ 224-year history. Cmdr. Farrell, a native of Kentucky, is a 2004 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, has served on surface warfare ships, and comes to Constitution with a love of Navy traditions.
Shortly after the change of command, I had the chance to sit down with her to learn more about her career in the Navy and discuss her first impressions of taking command of such a historic ship:
Welcome to USS Constitution, Cmdr. Farrell! I understand your assignment as the commanding officer is not your first time to “Old Ironsides”. Can you tell me about that?
Thank you! In the summer of 1998, my family and I made a road trip from Kentucky to New England. Along the way we stopped at Annapolis to check out the U.S. Naval Academy because I was interested in applying there. We also met Academy midshipmen in Boston who were on the Academy YPs [Yard Patrol Craft] for their summer float training. I was excited to talk to the midshipmen as well as visit USS Constitution. I liked Constitution because I am drawn to the history of the ship. It is a somber battlefield, when you walk Constitution’s decks. And I had that big picture feeling of standing on a piece of history. I was also struck by the old and new Navy – the contrast of Constitution’s history and the modern Academy midshipmen. I came back to Boston as a midshipman in the summer of 2001 on a YP, but I didn’t visit Constitution on that trip.
You have mentioned your high school physics teacher, Capt. Wayne Hagan, USN (ret), as a mentor for your Navy career; are there other Navy officers that have mentored or inspired your USN career?
When Capt. Hagan found out my interest in the Naval Academy, he took me under his wing and helped with my application to the Academy which is a complicated process. Capt. Hagan helped me to navigate the paperwork, the letter of nomination from a Member of Congress… And when I graduated from the Academy, I was not only commissioned with the whole class, but afterwards I had Capt. Hagan conduct my personal swearing-in ceremony at the Academy.
Throughout the 18 years of my Navy career, I have had great male mentors along the way. They have been great sounding boards – both for career advice and providing help with decisions that I needed to make for a command.
I have almost always been the only female officer in my commands and so I take mentoring seriously. The Navy supports diversity when recruiting the best and brightest young people. I see myself not only as a direct mentor but also as a conduit for placing people with the appropriate mentors to further their careers.
What attracted you to apply for Constitution’s commanding officer and were you aware that you would be the first female CO?
First, I was selected for command of a vessel and then the timing worked with the end of Cmdr. John Benda’s tour on “Old Ironsides” and so I put my name in for Constitution. Then I checked the list of former Constitution COs and that’s when I realized that I would be the first female commanding officer in 224 years!
I have so many female friends who are COs in ships – through my command I want to highlight women across the fleet who are ready to respond to the needs of the U.S. Navy. I think my being Constitution’s first female commanding officer is exciting for Boston – Bostonians love this ship – and I’m the first CO from Kentucky, so this is important for Kentucky.
Where do you see the relevance of naval history and USS Constitution for today’s Navy Sailors?
Constitution is where the U.S. Navy started. So many traditions of today’s Navy can be seen in its founding. The dedication of the 1812 sailors – the skills and training that they had to master to be successful in battle – are similar to skill sets and training today. Even the service dress officer’s uniform of today – you can see where it came from when you look at the 1812 officers’ uniforms. Our Sailors not only need to learn Constitution’s history while they are here, but they also need to keep up their modern Navy skill sets as well, so that they are prepared to go out into the fleet when they leave Boston.
As a country, America has always gotten behind symbols, and the ship Constitution is a symbol that all visitors can touch and see. And remember that all Navy personnel take the oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, the document, so there is that connection too.
When I conduct a re-enlistment ceremony, and we’re going to a have a few here on Constitution soon, I always give the Sailor a copy of the Constitution of the United States and I, the executive officer and the senior chief all sign it – this to stress the importance of the document to the Sailor.
I know that you’ve already been studying Constitution’s history – have you learned anything that has surprised and intrigued you and which might become a specific area of Constitution study for you?
I have so far read about times from the end of the American Revolution, leading to the beginnings of the Navy. I find nautical phrases that we still use today, but that originated in Constitution’s era, so interesting. I am drawn to the Guerriere battle [in the War of 1812], but I know there will be more things [in Constitution’s] history that will become a focus. And I am in awe of how often the American public stepped up to save the ship – ‘Save Old Ironsides’ – the American public makes its connection to Constitution personal.
Any last thoughts?
I like to remind everyone that Constitution is crewed by active-duty Sailors who are here to share Constitution’s story. We welcome people from across the country and Bostonians, especially, to visit the ship.