Women on subs talk mission, working with men

After intense training and hitting the fleet, 10 of the Navy’s first female submariners gathered May 24 in Washington, D.C., to share their experiences over the past six months. The head of the submarine force hailed them as examples of the Navy’s best and brightest.

“The Navy and the submarine force really garner the best people that the nation has to offer,” said Vice Adm. John Richardson, who added these women were living proof that the once all-male force “is opening up doors to more diversity and more talent.”

The transition began in November, when female officers began reporting to their boats. The first to add women were the ballistic-missile subs Wyoming and Maine and guided-missile subs Georgia and Ohio. Women are assigned to both the blue and gold crews for each sub. For the next year or so, the primary focus for the 18 female submarine officers will be earning the gold chest device, known as “dolphins” or “fish,” which demonstrates mastery of submarine operations.

“So far, the qualification process has been rigorous, but it's also been a lot of fun,” said Lt. j.g. Tabitha Strobel, the main propulsion assistant on Georgia’s gold crew, who’s married to a submariner. “At the end of the day, what we want to do is drive the submarine, and the chances that we get to do that are extremely rewarding.”

Despite the training and briefings, it took one crew about a week to come to grips with their new shipmates.

“At first, the guys were a little more timid, just because they hadn’t worked with females on a day-to-day basis,” said Lt. Britta Christianson, supply officer on Ohio’s gold crew, recalling her November 2011 check-in. “But after a week, they warmed up and we were just like brothers and sisters — fighting for the bathroom.”

Men and women take turns using the two available heads; women note their presence with an “occupied by female” sign.

Crew members have had to watch their language, beyond avoiding lewd jokes. After years of tacking “sir” onto every report, request and reply, sub sailors have to add “ma’am” to their vocabulary. Still, the occasional slip-ups don’t bother one officer.

“If they call me ‘sir,’ then I know that they’ve fully accepted me,” said Lt. j.g. Vanessa Esch, the electrical officer on Ohio’s blue crew. “They see me as an officer, not as a woman. So that’s good.”

The historic transition has not been without issues. Two of the original eight supply officers — lieutenants chosen to be role models for the young submariners arriving at their boats straight from training — were pulled from their crews in March and charged two months later for allegedly filing false travel claims for roughly $4,500 each. After an investigation, another female supply officer was exonerated.

The next batch of 15 female submariners and five supply lieutenants is slated to begin arriving at boats in January 2013, according to submarine force spokeswoman Cmdr. Monica Rousselow. The next two subs to be integrated are the guided-missile sub Florida and ballistic-missile sub Louisiana, she said.

Byline: Sam Fellman, Staff Write

Graphic: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet the U.S. Navy's first contingent of women submariners to be assigned to the Navy’s operational submarine force, in the Blue Room of the White House, May 28, 2012. The 24 women were accepted into the Navy’s nuclear submarine program after completing an intensive training program and serve on ballistic and guided missile submarines throughout the Navy. Also attending were ADM Mark Ferguson, left, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, right. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) May 28, 2012.

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Posted on: 30 May 2012 


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