Women Say They're Fitting in on Subs

Lt. j.g. Megan Bittner was photographed in May as an ensign at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor. Photo by Lt. Ed Early/Nav
Lt. j.g. Megan Bittner was photographed in May as an ensign at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor. Photo by Lt. Ed Early/Nav

BANGOR -- Female submariners are fitting right in.

Since reporting to their boats in November, 25 women who broke one of the Navy's final gender barriers have gone on patrol and been accepted among their crews.

"The men adjusted to us being there, and we adjusted to them," said Lt. j.g. Megan Bittner of the USS Ohio gold crew. "It was quick. There were no big problems. No stumbling blocks along the way. It was just learning as a junior officer how you fit on the boat."

Bittner, 24, is one of 13 women assigned to two Trident submarines based at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor -- the cruise-missile-carrying Ohio and the USS Maine, armed with nuclear warheads. Another dozen are in Kings Bay, Ga., with the USS Wyoming and USS Georgia. Each have blue and gold crews that take turns operating the boats. There are three women on each crew -- two on their first assignments and a more experienced supply officer who serves as their mentor. The Ohio blue crew includes four women because fewer dropped out of training than the Navy anticipated.

It's not that hard to wash out. After the submariners graduated from the Naval Academy or ROTC programs in spring 2010, they spent six months in Nuclear Power School in Charleston, S.C., six months at the Nuclear Power Training Unit, or "prototype," also in Charleston, and nine weeks at Submarine Officer Basic Course in Groton, Conn. At prototype, they toiled 12 hours a day, six days a week in decommissioned subs with working reactors.

"It's definitely challenging," said Lt. j.g. Amber Cowan, a main propulsion assistant with the Maine gold crew. "All of it's very fast-paced compared to traditional college courses."

"You get so much information in a short time period," added Bittner, an electrical assistant from Chesapeake, Va.

A week after arriving at Bangor, Cowan, also 24, met the Maine in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and finished a patrol. Bittner flew to Guam, where the Ohio was forward-deployed, and patrolled for three months.

"It's definitely a different kind of atmosphere," said Cowan, a University of Washington graduate from Colorado Springs. "You're always working. You don't see the sun every day. You're adapting to a new routine, learning everything you need to know, getting to know everybody."

While learning their own jobs, junior officers are pulled to all parts of the boat to perform or observe things for their qualifications, which leads to earning their dolphins.

"I found it surprising the sheer amount of things we had to study," said Bittner, a North Carolina State graduate. "It's not just the engine room or ship control. You have to be a jack of all trades. I've never worked harder, slept less or learned more than my first deployment, but I never thought twice about it because everybody's in the same position."

The female supply officers, also new to submarines, provide advice, guidance and a link to the upper chain of command.

There are five officer staterooms. Women share one. There is one head for all 15 officers. It has a sign on the door saying whether it's in use by a man or woman. They also can use the watch-stander's head.

"It's not a big deal," Cowan said. "There's somebody always working, somebody always sleeping. You just go when you need to and there's no issue."

Bittner compared it to brothers and sisters sharing a bathroom.

The toughest part is the separation, they said. Cowan is married to a former submariner who's now a flight officer in Virginia.

"He knew what I was getting into, and he supported it," she said.

Bittner is engaged to a submariner on the USS Jimmy Carter, also at Bangor.

"To have all the work and stress related to doing your job the best you can and also the extra stress of separation, I would say those two things on top of each other would be the most difficult part," she said. "People do it all the time, though."

Female submariners knew when they took the job they'd be under a microscope, that people would be curious how they're doing. Cowan and Bittner accept the attention.

"It is important we are talking about our experience, not so much to say look at us but to show this is not the big ordeal some people thought it was, that it hasn't been the mistake some people projected it to be," Bittner said.

The next group of female submariners will begin arriving at boats in January, joining the ballistic-missile USS Louisiana at Bangor and the guided-missile USS Florida at Kings Bay.

What advice would the trailblazers give them?

"You're going to work hard, and you're going to get a reward," Cowan said. "You'll be fine. Once you get down there, you're not a female, you're a submarine JO."

Altogether, there are 18 Trident submarines -- 14 ballistic-missile and four converted to guided missiles. Ten are at Bangor, eight at Kings Bay. The Navy began integration with them because they're 560 feet long and don't need to be modified. They would have to be changed to accommodate enlisted women, however. Fast attack subs are too small to allow privacy.

The only Navy jobs women can't hold now are with the SEALS special operations forces.

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