USA — Submariners Prepare for Culture Changes

ABOARD THE USS RHODE ISLAND, Aug. 23, 2010 — Ask the offi­cers of this Ohio-class bal­lis­tic mis­sile sub­ma­rine which of this year’s pol­i­cy changes will be the hard­er to imple­ment -– the one that will assign women to subs or the one that bans smok­ing -– and they answer with­out hes­i­ta­tion.

“No smok­ing!” Mas­ter Chief Pet­ty Offi­cer Robert McCombs, head of the sub’s engi­neer­ing depart­ment, said dur­ing an Aug. 16 media vis­it to the sub­ma­rine, while his accom­pa­ny­ing crew nod­ded in agree­ment.

Ear­li­er this sum­mer, the Navy chose 21 women, most­ly from this year’s Naval Acad­e­my grad­u­ates, to be the first women to serve on sub­marines. They began the 15-month train­ing process in July, and will be post­ed on the Tri­dents in the fall of 2011, Navy offi­cials said. The ban was over­turned, Navy Sec­re­tary Ray Mabus has said, because the ser­vice was miss­ing out on too many tal­ent­ed poten­tial recruits.

Offi­cers on board the Rhode Island were quick to say that the addi­tion of three women offi­cers to the crew next fall will be an asset.

“Women will bring a lot to sub­marines,” McCombs said. “Most of us have worked with women before, so I think the only real issue will be logis­tics and berthing.”

Navy offi­cials have said the Ohio-class sub­marines will need min­i­mal to no mod­i­fi­ca­tions to accom­mo­date the first group of women. The Rhode Island has two state rooms with doors that lock, and two bath­rooms with two show­ers each. One bath­room with show­ers was des­ig­nat­ed “female-only” for cer­tain times dur­ing the media vis­it, and a sep­a­rate bath­room with­out show­ers was for women only dur­ing the 24-hour vis­it.

That’s not to say the per­ma­nent addi­tion of women will be easy.

Mas­ter Chief Pet­ty Offi­cer Jef­frey Bot­toms, chief of the boat for the Rhode Island, said the cul­tur­al change “will take some get­ting used to,” but “if they can do the job, we’ll take them.”

The Navy’s strict poli­cies against frat­er­niza­tion and sex­u­al harass­ment have been in place since the ban on women serv­ing on sur­face ships was lift­ed in the mid-1990s, Bot­toms not­ed. “I think after this hap­pens we will say, ‘Why did­n’t we put women on board years ago?’ ” he said.

Mean­while, the smok­ing ban, which was enact­ed after stud­ies showed sec­ond-hand smoke is a prob­lem, will go into effect on sub­marines in Jan­u­ary. The ban will hit hard on subs where smok­ing is com­mon. On the Rhode Island, half of the crew smokes, McCombs said.

Prepar­ing the crew for the smok­ing ban has includ­ed smok­ing ces­sa­tion pro­grams and efforts to make smok­ing incon­ve­nient, such as lim­it­ing smok­ing time and the num­ber of sailors who smoke in the boat’s smok­ing area at any giv­en time, McCombs said.

“This is a very high-stress job,” he said. “We push our crew very hard every day, 12 to 18 hours a day, and smok­ing is how they relax. Some peo­ple are say­ing they don’t want to stay on subs” because they can’t smoke.

“Ces­sa­tion pro­grams should start in boot camp,” he added.

Lt. Eugene Mendez, the Rhode Island’s assis­tant weapons offi­cer, wore a smok­ing ces­sa­tion patch on his arm to pre­pare for the Jan­u­ary dead­line to stop smok­ing. As for the addi­tion of women, he said, the sub­ma­rine cul­ture has changed since he joined it 20 years ago to more read­i­ly accept women on board.

“We’ve always worked hard, but we used to play real­ly hard, too,” Mendez said. “We had few­er mar­ried [crew mem­bers] back then, so this was your fam­i­ly.”

While the sub­mariners’ bond still is tight, Mendez said, those changes affect­ed cama­raderie, and adding women will, too.

“It def­i­nite­ly will affect the sub­ma­rine force,” he said.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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