Women Under Water
No e-mail, no privacy, but lots of officers What's it like to live in a submarine? Get the inside story on the first women to take the plunge.
By Abigail Pesta
Photo Credit: Getty Images
This fall, for the first time in history, women in the Navy are headed for the nation's elite submarine service. Twenty-four women will board eight ballistic-missile and guided-missile attack submarines a historic step, but also a controversial one in the eyes of some seamen. One retired male Naval officer has launched a petition, gathering 600 names of past and present military personnel, as well as some spouses, opposing the move. Space is tight on the subs, critics say, and women might bump up against men in the corridors, causing sexual tension and harassment. But the women are up for the challenge ahead, says Jacqueline DiRosa, the first woman ever to serve as Fleet Master Chief, the second-highest position in the Navy. We asked the recently retired DiRosa what these women's lives will be like under the waves.
How do people prepare mentally and physically for this job?
The training is quite extensiveit can take 18 months or more. There is a huge investment of time and resources put into these personnel. They go through all kinds of preparationlearning damage control, training in nuclear propulsion. But first you have to pass a very rigorous mental screening process. You have to be very mentally stable because these deployments are quite unique. Space is tight. Its not like every day you can come up for some fresh air.
There will be three women on each of the eight subs. How many men will be aboard?
The crew size is roughly 250. So there is going to be a very small percentage of women compared to men on board.
Is there any way to get any privacy?
Yes, you have your own personal sleeping quarters, called a rack. Its basically a little bigger than a coffin. Its maybe two-and-a-half feet wide.
Thats your only private spacethe coffin?
Yes! For the most part, you will have your own rack; there are several racks in a room, and the rooms are small. The womens racks will be separate from the mens.
Who are these women going aboard the submarineshow did they get the gig?
They are mostly recent Naval Academy grads, along with a few senior officers who will go on board as mentors for the younger women. This is a new opportunity in the Navy, and it is going to come with some challenges: Not everybodys going to be there with wide-open arms, although I think overall its going to be very positive. One young lady who I talked to told me she was excited and motivated, and she gave me the sense that she wasnt going to let anybody take this opportunity from her. I think all the women realize this opportunity is really going to set the tone for future groups. Theres a lot resting on their shoulders, and I think they realize that.
Opponents point to potential sexual harassment. What do you say to that?
I would say the leadership needs to set the tone, and everybody needs to understand that youre part of a professional organization and professionals dont treat each other unprofessionally. There are always going to be men out there who are going to try you as a woman to see: How far can I push you before I break you? And if something happens to our women going on board and they dont act or say something and stop it, then thats when that cancer grows. Leadership cant act on something unless they know of something. As soon as leadership finds out, we deal with it. So Im not personally concerned with that.
Can people email friends and family from a submarine?
Email is very limited. Submarines do not have the capabilities to communicate as a surface vessel can. And a lot of times, when a submarine goes on deployment, you dont know where they go. External communications can provide vulnerability. Those operations are very secure and kept secret because its all about national security. People are able to get letters when they pull into a port, but the delay could be so greatif they are submerged for 60 to 90 days or so at a time, they are not pulling into port anytime soon. Communications are very limited.
So submariners might not know where theyre going before they head out?
Some people dont know until theyve left the pier. Depending on what the missions are, it can be very secretive. There is a reason its called the Silent Service. Being on a submarine is a unique part of our Navy service. From my observation, folks who do it, love it. Among submariners, there is a unique bond. It requires a special type of person.
Is there a gym on board?
There is workout equipment, and depending on how the submarine is configured, you will find a couple treadmills or stationary bikes in some placeswherever space will allow. There is not necessarily an exclusive room for equipment. You dont have the luxury of that.
Hows the food?
Usually the food is pretty darn good. One of the most important things to any deployment, whether it is on a ship or a submarine, is food. If the food is lousy, it impacts you mentally. And that impacts you physicallyits all connected. Theres usually a small crew that does the cooking, and theyre well trained. Never have I heard a submarine crew not eat well.
What do people do for fun?
People will bring games on boardtheyll bring personal devices with video games and movies that theyll watch in their rack. But youve got to realize, there is not tons of time off. And also, you have to limit what you personally bring on board. You cant bring a bunch of extras. You better learn to fold your clothes well, to maximize the space you do have!
Whats the bathroom situation?
Theyre smalltight and cozy. They would be equivalent to a bathroom in a mobile home or a camper. To bathe, you turn the water on, get wet, then turn off the water and soap up. Then you turn the water back on, rinse off, and youre done.
The only hurdle left for women in the Navy is to become Navy Seals. Can that happen?
Yes, the Special Forces. I think it will happenits just a matter of time. Its my opinion that there is a place for women in Special Forces because right now, when I look at the current war situation that we are in, women have the opportunity, I believe, to gather intelligence and to get to places that our men cannot. We do have women who serve in some support roles with our Special Forces, but they are not considered special operators, if you will. Our Navy Seals are phenomenal in what they do, but I think there are opportunities there that some of our women could do extremely well. Will we have a lot of women who would seek out that type of military career on assignment? Maybe not. But does that mean we close those opportunities up? No. I think we make the opportunity available and then see who comes knocking at the door.