Two years after the Navy decided to allow women to serve as officers aboard its submarines, the integration of women into the submarine force appears to be going smoothly.
That's the word from some of the first women selected to become "submariners," who say the challenges they have faced during the last two years of training have had nothing to do with gender, but with the overall challenge of becoming a junior officer in the elite submarine force.
"It's a challenge to be a junior officer on a submarine, in general," said Ensign Abigail Holt, who is currently serving aboard the USS Wyoming. "Outside of being female on a submarine, all of us are trying to qualify, all of us are trying to support the ward room and trying to be a team member. That is challenging, in itself."
Holt was among several of the first 24 female naval officers selected to serve aboard submarines who participated in a Navy news conference held Thursday in Washington. They were joined by male junior officers with whom they are currently serving with aboard submarines.
The first female officers began serving aboard submarines last November after completing the rigorous 18-month educational and training requirements required of all naval officers who set their sights on becoming submariners. Serving aboard the submarines provides them with the real-world experience they need to earn the insignia known as the "dolphin" pin, or "fish" that sets them apart as fully qualified submarine officers.
All of the officers at today's news conference are in the qualification phase of their service.
Two of them brought a unique perspective because they are a married couple serving on separate submarines.
Lt. j.g. William Strobel, who served deployments on the USS Wyoming before and after female officers came aboard, said, "there wasn't much of a difference, it was a very smooth transition." He added, "As far as being a male on a submarine, it wasn't really much of a change at all, honestly."
His wife, Lt. j.g. Tabitha L. Strobel, serving aboard the USS Georgia, agreed that the transition had gone well aboard her vessel and that she was focused on getting her "fish."
"At the end of the day," she said, "what we want to do is drive a submarine and the chances that we get to do that are extremely rewarding and definitely a lot of fun."
The current program allows female officers to serve on large ballistic and guided missile submarines, but not on the smaller, fast-attack submarines. Participating via phone link, Vice Adm. John Richardson, commander, submarine forces, said no decisions have been made about whether to allow women to serve on the attack submarines or to expand the program and allow enlisted women to also serve in the submarine force.
He said those decisions would await the feedback and lessons learned from the current program. Richardson described the feedback that's come in so far as "very positive and very encouraging." He added that the way the transition has been set up so far "seems to be working pretty well, so if we're going to expand it we want to preserve that same approach if wanted to open it up" to fast-attack submarines.
Richardson said that, beginning in 2013, the Navy hopes to add about 20 additional women a year under the program.
Lt. j.g. Emma Larena noted that her fellow sailors had been properly trained and readied for the arrival of women to the submarine force.
"I think that they're so prepared, whereas at other commands you show up and you're just another sailor," she said.
She added that whatever novelty may have existed shortly after her arrival to the USS Wyoming wore off quickly and it was " just like normal business, there's nothing different … we're just going to do our jobs."