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All aboard the Navy submarine; women now welcome, too

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on April 29, 2010.

And more changes are on the way, including a ban on smoking and a decision on the military’s 'don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach.



ST. MARYS - The first of a series of changes coming to the U.S. submarine fleet became official Thursday with the announcement by Rear Adm. Barry Bruner that the Navy will proceed with allowing women to serve on the subs.

Twenty-four female officer candidates will enter the training pipeline this year and begin serving as junior officers about late 2011.

But that's just the start of a time of change bound to be a roller-coaster even for men used to steep dives and rapid ascents. At the beginning of next year, smoking on all submarines will be banned. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings is the Defense Department-wide reaction to the ending of "don't ask, don't tell."

Based on conversations with dozens of officers and enlisted sailors serving on a Trident-bearing ballistic missile submarine and a fast-attack submarine, much of the fleet seems at least resigned to those changes, with some sailors saying the entrance of women and the exit of cigarettes are both good.

Of any of the changes, the idea that gay sailors could be open about their sexuality seemed the least bothersome to those who talked with The Times-Union.

"We probably have gay sailors now, just based on the statistics, " said Chief Petty Officer Chris Harris, the independent duty corpsman aboard the USS Alaska, a ballistic missile submarine stationed at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base near St. Marys.

Integrating women into the fleet has gotten a much stronger reaction, with the decision decried by retirees who see the move as destroying a culture they cherish while setting up a situation sure to lead to trouble.

"You cannot close the hatch on a submarine, submerge and tell the crew members, 'Don't act human, ' " John Mason, a retired submariner from Kings Bay whose petition against the move has about 500 signatures, wrote in an open memo to the Navy. "We can have idealistic expectations, but we must live in a realistic world."

Bruner said he doesn't discount such concerns but doesn't feel they reflect the force he's working with now.

"The opposition that is out there seems to come mostly from folks no longer serving, " the rear admiral said.

Those who are serving say they stand by the change in policy and expect their crews to live up to their reputation.

"Every year we change the way we do business, " said Cmdr. Kevin Byrne, commanding officer of the USS Alaska. "The guys aboard these ships are professionals."

Still, said Chief Brian Giles, stationed aboard the Alaska, "It's going to be a big change. It's a culture shift."

The addition of women to the crew won't make it any less efficient or professional, he said, but it will change some of the intangibles.

"The way we react underwater, the way we cut up - not that it's inappropriate, but it's a men's club, " Giles said. "It will take away some of camaraderie, we'll lose some of the brotherhood."

Although the fast-attack subs won't see women for a while, those crews are preparing as well.

"It's going to be a challenge, " said Cmdr. Jasper Hartsfield, commanding officer of the USS Newport News, a fast-attack sub. "I think the cultural change may help us more than anything."

The Navy has tried, on and off, to get women into the sub fleet since the service started integrating the service fleet in 1978, Bruner said. Among the reasons to go ahead is the addition of guided-missile submarines to the fleet, which has opened up a new career path for women. There's also the simple need for more officers.

For submariners to advance to command, they have had to put in time on the two types of submarine: fast-attack and ballistic-missile.

Guided-missile subs are retrofitted ballistic-missile boats designed to handle missions similar to those done by fast-attack submarines, which mean they're big enough to accommodate a mixed-gender crew, allowing female officers to gain a diversity of experience.

Another reason for the timing, Bruner said, is the force's personnel needs. In 2005 and 2008, the service didn't get enough officers volunteering to join the submarine force. With the number of women getting technical degrees now outpacing men, the Navy needs to turn to that pool of potential recruits.

There is no timetable in place for when enlisted women will join the fleet. That step will come with a bigger price tag as the Navy will have to make physical changes to the ship, such as installing a new, female-only bathroom.

The only cost to integrating the larger guided- and ballistic-missile subs stems from updating the sickbay, such as sending the independent duty corpsmen to refresher training on female medical issues.

That won't be an issue, said Harris, the Alaska's corpsman. The submarine docs all have to be experienced, meaning they've likely spent time on an integrated surface ship.

Plans for integration of the fleet's 55 fast-attack submarines also have not been finalized, with the smaller, more cramped boats raising more concerns.

"These things weren't designed very well for giving people privacy, " said Lt. Cmdr Nirav Patel, executive officer of the Newport News. "We're going to have to figure it out."

The women who will enter that training pipeline have not yet been selected, but Bruner said interest has been high.

"There are a lot of women who would pursue actively - in fact, who long to have a career in the submarine fleet, " Bruner said.

That level of interest is what makes Master Chief Eddie Vanmeter, the Alaska's chief of the boat, think some of the opposition to the move is overblown. If anything, he said, the hand-picked women coming on to the boat will stir the men's competitive drive.

"I don't think that there'll be as much of a problem as everyone else, " he said. "The women we're bringing on will be so competent, it will bring our officers to a higher level."



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This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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