TAMPA — At barely 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, Mary Katey Hays is not your typical image of a warrior.
But despite her diminutive frame, she has served three tours in Iraq, earned a Bronze Star in 2007, and next week will take command of the USS Decatur, a guided-missile destroyer.
From an early age, the 39-year-old Tampa native was "driven to achieve," according to her father, Ross Hays.
"The girl's got grit. We are all so proud of her," says her younger sister, Suzy Mendelson, who laughingly remembers Mary Katey's childhood love of toy soldiers.
"She'd line them up in battle formation and I would run them over with my roller skates."
Hays, herself, is reticent about her accomplishments, but they are undeniable. In addition to the Bronze Star, she has received two Meritorious Service Medals, four Navy Commendation Medals and two Navy Achievement Medals.
A sports enthusiast, she played basketball and was a member of the Plant High School swimming team.
During a college scouting trip to Washington, D.C., with her father, they visited the U.S. Naval Academy "on a lark."
She was smitten and within two weeks began writing to Senators and Congressmen seeking an appointment. Former Congressman Sam Gibbons responded and, as they say, the rest is history.
"I thought it would be an adventure," Hays says. "I thought I would just serve for a few years, but I ended up liking it."
Since graduation from Annapolis in 1999, she has visited 40 countries. Among her favorites are Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia. She has gone to war in Iraq, chased pirates off the coast of Somalia and shown the flag throughout Asia and the South China Sea.
Her current home port is San Diego, where she has an apartment and commutes to her ship daily "like any office."
Hays has served as engineer officer on the guided-missile destroyer USS Carney and on the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam, as well as navigator and damage control assistant on the USS Milius, also a guided-missile destroyer. She is currently executive officer, second in command, aboard the USS Decatur.
While she served aboard the Milius, the sister ship to the USS Cole, her family came to realize the real danger of military service.
Mendelson vividly remembers when the Cole was bombed in Yemen's Aden harbor in 2000.
"I was in the doctor's office when I saw the report on TV. The sound was off, but I was sure it was her ship. We didn't know for hours whether she was OK," Mendelson says.
Hays won't talk about the Cole, except to say, "I had friends on that ship."
She does say, though, that a few years later the Milius was one of the ships that fired cruise missiles at Saddam Hussein's palace.
Later, Hays enrolled in the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., where she earned a master's degree in national security affairs with a Middle East subspecialty and became fluent in Arabic.
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After the United States invaded Iraq, she returned to Iraq as an interpreter for the "Winning Hearts and Minds" campaign.
While visiting an Iraqi village school in Anbar Province, insurgents fired on the school. Hays and her team rushed the children to safe areas in the school and returned fire, eventually defeating the insurgents.
"There were no heroics," says Mary Katey. "This sort of thing happened a lot."
The Navy disagreed, however, and awarded her a Bronze Star.
"Mary Katey is very modest," her father says. "She keeps all of this close. It was a very tough time for her, but she saved lives that day."
Today, she is a commander in the U.S. Navy and once she takes over command of the San Diego-based Decatur on Nov. 18, she will be known as "Captain Hays" to its 320 crew members. It may seem uncommon for a woman to captain a Navy vessel, but according to a American Public Radio report, the Navy has allowed women to serve on warships for about 20 years, and it's become more common for female officers to command the heavily armed vessels.
As for Hays, she will reach her 20th year of service in 2019, but she is not sure she is ready to leave the Navy: "I may stay a bit longer if I keep having fun with it."
Or, she may go to law school or become a middle school history teacher. Her options, Mary Katey says, are totally open.
Contact Sheila Mullane Estrada at firstname.lastname@example.org.