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Cape Cod St. Patrick's parade to honor 1st woman commander of Old Ironsides

Channel-surfing piqued her interest in the Navy. Today, Cmdr. Billie J. Farrell is the first woman to command the world's oldest warship, and on Saturday will serve as the parade's grand marshal.

On Saturday the Cape Cod St. Patrick’s parade in Yarmouth will honor Billie Farrell as its grand marshal.

Farrell in January became the first woman commander of the USS Constitution, the world's oldest commissioned warship. Old Ironsides was undefeated in battle and earned its nickname during the War of 1812 when British cannonballs were seen bouncing off the ship's wooden hull.

Patrick Flanary: How did you get the news that you would be commanding officer of the USS Constitution? Was it unexpected?

U.S. Navy Cmdr. Billie Farrell: It was news I had hoped to get. I applied for the position, and it was a few months of waiting. But on a Friday afternoon I got the notification that I had been selected for the job. My husband and I were in the car and I said, "You're not going to believe it, I got it." And we were so thrilled to have this opportunity.

PF: And how did the kids take it?

BF: Once we showed them the ship and gave them the history of it, they were super-excited, especially my 6-year-old son. He likes to come with me as often as he can and watch the ship conduct evening colors. So when we fire the gun and lower the flag at sunset, I always like to bring him and talk about the importance of that event. And he thinks it's super-fun to see the cannons shoot.

PF: What was your first encounter with the ship, and had you been on it before?

BF: I actually came here on a family vacation in 1998 when I was in high school. We walked the whole Freedom Trail, we came by the ship. And so that same day I was notified that I was going to come here as a commanding officer, I immediately went through my scrapbooks and found a picture of me standing next to the ship as a high schooler. So even then I remember coming to this ship and just being in awe of her and everything she stood for, and recognizing her as a battlefield where sailors gave their lives to establish our country and our freedom as we know it today. And so I feel very blessed to continue that legacy.

PF: You're the first woman to serve as commanding officer of the ship in its 224-year history. Does that matter to you? Is that important?

BF: It does. It definitely matters. Women have been commanding ships in the Navy for a long time. It just took a little bit longer for it to happen here. And I feel honored that I'm the person that gets to represent all the women across the Navy. We have 70,000 active-duty women in the Navy, we have 20 women serving as commanders like myself. So to stand here and represent them and have this platform is definitely important.

PF: What is it like day-to-day?

BF: I have 80 active-duty sailors that I'm responsible for leading and making sure that they're set up for success. It's challenging because I ask them to be an 1812 sailor — they have to learn the ship and how to sail the ship — but I also ask them to be a 2022 sailor, because when this tour's over they do have to go out to the fleet to do whatever job and rating they signed up for. So it's a balance. I ask a lot of them and they always rise to the occasion. Our mission here is to preserve, promote and protect the ship. But we also go out into the community and tell our stories across the country.

PF: Do you have any personal connection to Cape Cod? Do you get here much?

BF: I don't. Actually, this past weekend, when we came for the [parade committee] breakfast, it was my first trip to the Cape and I fell in love with it. My whole family is coming this weekend and I'm definitely looking forward to hopefully some more time down there maybe this summer.

PF: What inspired you to pursue the Navy? What drew you to it?

BF: In sixth grade I was channel-surfing one day, and I stopped on a Naval Academy graduation ceremony and was immediately drawn to the tradition. And after they threw their covers in the air, I immediately marched downstairs and told my parents that's where I was going to school. And then I spent the rest of my middle- and high-school days trying to figure out how to make that dream happen. And I was lucky enough to be part of the Naval Academy class of 2004.

The 16th annual Cape Cod St. Patrick's parade in Yarmouth begins Saturday, 11 a.m., on Rte. 28 at Long Pond Rd., and will march to Higgins Crowell Rd.

Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.