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Female NSWC chief making big splash
The new Surface Warfare Center commander at Dahlgren gets an early start

 Capt. Sheila Patterson (USN), commander of the Naval Surface Warfare Center at the Dahlgren naval base.
ROBERT A. MARTIN/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
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Date published: 11/28/2007

By Ed Jones

DON'T WORRY about that swooshing sound you can occasionally hear at 5:30 a.m. in the swimming pool on the Dahlgren naval base.

That's just the first female commander in the 89-year history of the base's Naval Surface Warfare Center doing her indoor laps.

Hitting the road from her Prince William County home at 4:15 a.m. is part of the morning drill for 47-year-old Sheila Patterson, who followed her interest in sports to the Naval Academy just two years after women were first admitted.

Despite the eye-opening schedule for Patterson, a self-described "morning person," some things in her Navy life haven't stayed strictly on schedule.

For example, there was that plan to put in seven years of service in the Navy after the academy, and then focus on raising the family. The two boys and one girl arrived ahead of schedule.

So Patterson has made a career of it, rising in May to the command of a 2,800-person center of scientists, engineers and sailors who have become, in Sen. John Warner's words, "one of the crown jewels of American defense."

During her naval journey to the King George County base, Patterson has navigated an array of technical assignments, most recently as executive assistant to the admiral who oversees the Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington.

But her service got its start in the 1980s in Annapolis, when women were just beginning to pass through the doors of the Naval Academy.

From her home in Connecticut, where her dad worked for the federal government, Patterson was hoping to leverage her interest in sports into an ROTC scholarship. But thanks to a weekend visit to Annapolis as a high-schooler, her sights quickly focused on the Naval Academy.

Raised a Catholic, Patterson didn't chafe at the restrictions of military life. Active in sports, especially swimming and crew, she avoided some of that first-year hazing by earning a seat at an athletes' table.

She's still pushing the athletic limits, including some recent golf lessons. Patterson has occasionally played in a Dahlgren "men's league"--from the men's tees.

You can see the discipline Patterson brought to competitive sports in her management style, too. She likes lists.

During a recent chat in her office on the Dahlgren base, Patterson leafed through that day's to-do list, the short-term to-do list and the long-term to-do list.


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Sheila Patterson is sharing the stage for making gender history at the Dahlgren naval base in King George County. She's the first female commander ever for the Naval Surface Warfare Center, the largest of the six military commands at Dahlgren.

Meanwhile, Capt. Judy Smith continues her service as the first female commander of the Dahlgren base, now part of Naval Support Activity, South Potomac. Her responsibilities include day-to-day operations at Dahlgren and at Indian Head in Maryland, along with two other smaller Navy contingents in the D.C. area.