Uncharted Waters: Women on Subs

It’s been six years since the U.S. Navy opened the previously restricted submarine service to women, and four years since the submarine force welcomed its first 24 female officers. Before those 24 pioneers earned their dolphins, they completed the Navy’s intensive 15-month submarine officer training program which included six months of nuclear power school and six months in a nuclear power training unit, in addition to basic submarine officer school. They deployed to four of the Navy’s largest submarines—its Ohio-class ballistic-missile and guided-missile vessels—with six women assigned to each submarine and three on each of the sub’s two crews. More living space was available aboard the larger submarines and with no modification required, the Navy was able to move quickly on integrating female officers in submarines.  

In the years that followed, the Navy welcomed the first 38 enlisted female sailors to serve aboard submarines. A little over halfway through a decade filled with historic transformation for the American military and its women in particular, Shipmate sat down with Lieutenant Kayla Barron ’10, USN, one of those first 24 female submarine officers, now flag aide to Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Admiral Ted Carter ’81, USN, to discuss her experience in the submarine community and the integration of women into the force.

What inspired you to want to serve on a submarine?
As a midshipman, I had several mentors who were junior officers from the submarine warfare community who returned to the Academy to teach. Through my interactions with them, I developed a great deal of respect for the community. Between my youngster and second class years, I participated in PROTRAMID (Professional Training of Midshipmen), which provides midshipmen the opportunity to spend a week with each of the major warfare communities. Submarine week included a 24-hour underway on Jefferson City, a Los Angeles-class submarine out of San Diego, CA, during which the crew showcased the boat and its capabilities. We operated the periscope and observed the crew dive the ship. We also experienced “angles and dangles,” where the ship is run through a series of high-speed turns and steep angles. I took advantage of the opportunity to talk to the sailors, and I was blown away by their intelligence and motivation. My interest in the community grew exponentially because of that experience.

When it was announced that women would be allowed to join the submarine warfare community in September of my first-class year, I immediately volunteered. I had already volunteered and been selected for the nuclear surface warfare community in the hopes that I would be able to lateral transfer into the submarine warfare community if the policy was changed during my career. About six weeks before we graduated, 13 women from the Academy went to Naval Reactors for interviews, and all 13 of us were selected.

Can you share some of your service experiences?
I spent a year in graduate school at the University of Cambridge as a Gates Scholar after graduating from the Academy in 2010. In the fall of 2011, I started nuclear power school, and then went to the submarine officer basic course and prototype. Upon completion of my training, I received orders to Maine Gold Crew, a ballistic missile submarine home ported in Bangor, WA.

During my first year and a half on the boat, I served as the chemical/radiological controls assistant. My division monitored the reactor plant and steam plant water to ensure the chemistry supported safe operation and prevented corrosion that could eventually result in catastrophic damage to a system. I then served as the communications officer, overseeing the radiomen who maintain and operate our communication equipment.

You were unable to attend any of the core sub classes and/or training courses. Were you prepared?
Due to the timing of the policy change, the women in my class were only able to experience life on a submarine briefly during PROTRAMID, and we were not able to participate in the submarine warfare practicum class designed to prepare firstees for commissioning into their warfare community. Even so, once we graduated, our experience was identical to our male peers. The submarine community’s great equalizer is nuclear power school and prototype. Although I had to work hard to succeed, I was not intimidated since I had previous exposure to the subjects. It took me a while to get used to running complex evolutions and responding to simulated casualties, but I think the formula for preparing junior officers for their assignment to a sub is right. There are some things you have to learn through experience. For me, that was especially true of ship driving. At first, I was pretty intimidated by control (where the team that drives the submarine stands watch). One of my department heads realized I was hanging back in the engine room where I was a little more comfortable, so he pushed me to station as conning officer and take the boat to periscope depth. That experience helped me realize I had an aptitude for driving the boat that turned into a passion.

The Academy provided me the tools I needed to find creative solutions to real-world leadership and engineering challenges and instilled in me the importance of honest communication, which is essential to the psychological side of service on subs. Being away from home for extended periods with a very limited ability to communicate with friends and family meant my normal lifelines were not available. It was definitely challenging, but I formed really strong friendships in my wardroom, and those relationships got me through the more challenging times.

What advantages do female midshipmen have now in terms of education and training compared with those in your class?
One benefit that midshipmen have now that was not available to my class is the opportunity for a dedicated summer training experience on a submarine. Women can now go on extended submarine cruises to gain a better understanding of what it’s like to serve in the force, and that gives them a big advantage when making a decision as to where they want to serve. Outside of that opportunity, the process for preparing for submarine service is essentially the same.

Describe your integration with the crew when you first came onboard. Did you experience any resistance or opposition?
Junior officers work closely with their divisions and watch teams, so the crew really values competence. Since a watch team spends eight hours each day together, the sailors take an interest in training junior officers to be someone they want to work with—male or female. I learned that sailors make pretty quick judgments of junior officers. You get about two weeks before they decide their first impression of you, and if they see you working hard to qualify, they invest in you immediately. While there may have been some growing pains associated with the integration, sailors ultimately want junior officers who treat them with dignity and respect, who are easy to work with, and who are competent. As long as you display those qualities, they couldn’t care less about your gender.

What should leadership keep in mind when ushering in policy changes similar to the integration of women on submarines?
Ultimately, strong leadership is important whenever a change is instituted. Uncertainty was at the heart of most of the issues that arose during the integration, so transparency and clear communication from the community’s leadership solved most of the problems.

What advice would you give to midshipmen who also want to serve on submarines?
Work hard to become a good division officer and watch officer. That sounds obvious, but it really pays off in the long run. If you’re willing to put your head down and work to become a competent division officer and watch stander, everything seems to work out in the long run.

Speaking Out on the Silent Service

Classmates Lieutenant Marquette Leveque ’10, USN, (ML) and Lieutenant Tabitha Strobel ’10, USN, (TS) share their perspective and experience as women aboard submarines.

What was your path to the Academy?
ML: After September 11, I knew I wanted to serve my country in some form after high school. After looking more into the military, I realized the Navy was the most diverse of the branches and the Naval Academy would provide me with an amazing education and unprecedented experience. Also, I have always been passionate about leadership and I realized USNA was the perfect college to cultivate that passion.
TS: I grew up in Bowie, Maryland—just down the road from the Academy (within the liberty radius to be exact!). Since I grew up so close to Annapolis, I knew about USNA pretty early on. However, I didn’t make the decision to really pursue it until high school. Once I went to Summer Seminar in my junior year, I made up my mind that USNA was the place for me.

When did you decide you wanted to serve on subs?
ML: I initially service selected Navy pilot. During first semester of my firstie year, I had the opportunity to start my initial flight training. However, I realized I just did not enjoy flying like I thought I would. Around that same time, the opportunity for women to serve on submarines was first proposed. The more I looked into that community and spoke with submarine officers, the more excited I became and recognized the sub force was a great fit for me. I was most drawn to the small unit technical leadership that submarine officers are responsible for day one on board. I also loved the missions of the silent service and how critical they are in today’s world.
TS: I didn’t become interested in submarines until my battalion officer, a submarine officer, mentored me and introduced me to the submarine culture. Being a submariner was never on my radar before because it just wasn’t an option. But I decided to interview for nuclear surface warfare officer at Naval Reactors and that process got me introduced to the right people. In my first-class year, we formed a group of about 30 women who were interested in subs and we met regularly to discuss the program’s progress and the community. I think some of the deciding factors for me were the close-knit culture and the challenge of being a submarine officer. I was not disappointed in either aspect.

How does it feel to be among the first female officers serving on subs?
ML: I am definitely proud of my accomplishments and feel honored to be a part of such an amazing group of women. One of the proudest days of my life was the day that I became a part of the submarine brotherhood and sisterhood by earning my dolphins. That being said, I looked at my job on board the submarine as being no different than my male counterparts serving next to me. The amazing thing about submarines is that it is your skills and intelligence that matter, two things that are gender neutral.
TS: It was truly an honor to be part of the first group of female submariners. I didn’t really know what to expect and there were certainly a lot of unknowns. Being “one of the first” isn’t about pictures in newspapers. It’s about how you do your job and what you contribute to the team. It’s a responsibility to set up for the people who come after you. It was a humbling experience, but it was also a once in a lifetime opportunity to serve with the elite sailors of the submarine force.

What do you want alumni to know about women serving on subs?
ML: Even though the integration has had its setbacks, women provide a different perspective that has and will continue to make the submarine force even better.

TS: People like to ask “how was it?” and secretly cringe while waiting for my answer. Honestly, it was a blast. It was insane at times, but the caliber of people that serve on submarines is so high that you can always count on them for support, guidance and brutal honesty. It was fun and I can only hope that we have left behind a lasting legacy of inclusion on submarines—an environment where anyone regardless of gender, race or rank can succeed. We have the best submarine force in the world and it’s in great hands.

Source: March-April 2016 Shipmate


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