February 28, 2000 12:00 PM

When Valarie Williams discovered that her then-husband had joined the Navy without telling her, she did something she thought would serve him—and her country—right. She enlisted. The year was 1986, and the Navy was not exactly combat-ready when it came to the war between the sexes. So when a male recruiter suggested the 23-year-old former fashion model make her military mark as a secretary, she balked. “No way!” Williams told the startled recruiter. “I want to sink ships!”

She hasn’t sunk any ships during her 13-year career, but she has helped build one—and has loved Navy life. Despite that, Williams, 37 and one of the top Navy weaponeers, plans to leave “my babies”—her torpedoes—behind in March to remarry and settle down. It won’t be easy. “When you rub the nose of a torpedo, it’s so soft,” she says. “I tell the new guys, ‘The first time is free. Then you have to pay me to touch it.’ ” Williams also has a role in The Yard: Building a Destroyer at the Bath Iron Works, a new book by Michael S. Sanders about the Maine shipyard that has launched some of America’s most fearsome warships. Today, Williams is the top torpedoman—that’s the term she prefers—aboard the Norfolk, Va.-based U.S.S. Donald Cook, the 8,580-ton destroyer she helped build and outfit at Bath in 1998. “Valarie is a scream. First of all, she is gorgeous,” says Sanders. “But I would not want to mess with this lady. She can take apart and put together a torpedo blindfolded.”

Williams acquired that skill at torpedo school in Orlando, where she graduated first in her class of more than 30. “The men weren’t very happy about that,” she says. But Williams, who commands a crew of 18, long ago won male sailors’ respect. “I work hard for her,” says crewman Jarrod Trefelner, 23. “She’s talked to me about taking courses and advancing in the Navy.”

Williams can also change a car tire and play a mean game of tackle football, skills she learned from her father, George Crittenden, 60, a retired Army pilot who served in Vietnam. “He told us we didn’t have to depend on anybody,” says Williams of herself and her two sisters—Donna Kaufman, 39, and Mary Crittenden, 35. Williams’s mom, Betty Ann, who died in 1997, wanted her middle daughter to learn “poise and manners,” so she sent the 17-year-old to modeling school in Dothan, Ala.—one of many places the peripatetic family called home. It was not surprising that she found modeling for department stores and brochures “dull.”

She married Jeff Williams, an Army officer, in 1983, and had daughter Tiffany, now 16, before the couple divorced in 1989. She later had Chelsea, now 9, with a man to whom she was engaged but never married. Her Navy career has been less bumpy: From 1989 to 1999, Williams collected five Navy Achievement Medals, including one for her role in supervising critical equipment shipments to the TWA Flight 800 crash site. She got another for starting a support group—and babysitting service—for 100-plus ship-bound single parents.

Much as she will miss military life, Williams looks forward to spending more time with her longtime fiancé, Wilbur Croyle, who took an early retirement from the Navy in 1998, and with her daughters. “I would send them postcards from wherever I went,” Williams says of her many shipboard tours. “I came home once and my little one’s postcard was all wrinkled. She’d slept with it.” Williams and Croyle plan to marry in April, and the family will settle in Worcester, Mass. “I’ve always put the Navy before my family,” she says. “It’s time now to put my family first.”

Christina Cheakalos

Barbara Benham in Norfolk and Max Alexander in Bath

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