Navy hits major milestone for women in submarines

Eight years since the Navy first allowed women to serve in submarines, figures show retention rates for submariners across genders are about even. The numbers suggest that the Navy's effort toward better gender integration may be proving successful. 

Elaine Thompson/AP
US Navy Yeoman Suraya Mattocks, one of the first women to be selected to serve on submarines, poses in front of a submarine sail at the US Naval Undersea Museum on Jan. 18, 2018 in Keyport, Wash. Ms. Mattocks serves on the USS Michigan, which travels between the US and Guam.

When the US Navy sought the first female sailors to serve on submarines, Suraya Mattocks raised her hand because she had always thought it would be a cool job, not because she wanted to blaze a trail. She did anyway.

It has been eight years since the Navy lifted its ban on women in submarines. The chaos and disruption some predicted largely haven't materialized. Women like Ms. Mattocks are focused on doing their jobs well. Their retention rates are, to some surprise to the Navy, on par with those of men, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.

And they want to be seen simply as "submariners," not "female submariners."

"That'll be a great day when it's not so new that everyone wants to talk about it," Mattocks told the AP in a rare interview. "Females on my crew, they really and truly just want to be seen as submariners. That's it."

The Navy began bringing female officers on board submarines in 2010; enlisted female sailors followed five years later.

By now, the first 19 female officers have decided whether to sign a contract to go back to sea as a department head, which keeps them on the career path for a submarine officer, or have chosen a different path. Five women signed. Fourteen women have either left the military, will soon leave, or are serving elsewhere in the Navy, according to records requested by the AP.

That's a retention rate of 26 percent for the first female officers, just shy of the roughly 27 percent of male officers selected for submarine service in 2010 who signed a department head contract. The Navy had been looking for at least 15 percent for women.

Nine more female officers were picked for submarine service in 2010, but with the intention they would return to jobs in the supply departments on surface ships or ashore – a normal career path.

"You always want higher" numbers, said Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, but he is encouraged by the initial results and the growing number of female officer candidates who want to be submariners.

"I think if there was a sense it was not doing well, we wouldn't have those types of numbers," he said.

Richardson led the submarine force at the beginning of the integration, from late 2010 to 2012. At that time, some submarine veterans, wives of submariners and active-duty members were calling the change a mistake. The living quarters were too tight, there was little privacy, and romantic relationships could develop, they feared.

Many now say that the transition went smoothly, with one major exception. Male sailors were prosecuted in 2015 for secretly videotaping female officers and trainees as they undressed on the USS Wyoming.

"They did court-martial the perpetrators. It wasn't laughed off, and that's a good thing," said retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning, director of government relations for the Service Women's Action Network. "I don't think, in general, it dampens the effort."

To address privacy, the Navy is retrofitting subs with extra doors and designated washrooms. Future subs will be built with the height, reach, and strength of women in mind.

Mattocks is on the USS Michigan, a sub that splits its time between Washington state and Guam. Sailors have in some cases organically changed their behavior to accommodate changing times.

Some accustomed to sleeping in their underwear now don a robe or sweats to go to the bathroom, for instance, in case they encounter another gender in the hall.

"That goes for both sides. It's not that all females have to wear this and males can do whatever they want," Mattocks said. "It's just little things like that, having both genders in a small space. You figure out things you never would've thought of before."

One-fifth of submarine crews are integrated. It will take until about 2026 before a woman could be in command of a US Navy submarine.

Lt. Marquette Leveque, 29, is finishing her assignment this summer as the women in submarines coordinator, in which she manages the integration, advises Navy leaders and helps mentor future applicants. She is proud of her service as one of the first female officers on the USS Wyoming, she told the AP.

Among her peers, one was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate, others joined the corporate world or moved to different Navy jobs. Some are new mothers.

Mattocks, a 34-year-old yeoman first class from Dover, N.H., will soon retire from the Navy. She said she probably would have chosen to stay in the submarine force if it weren't so late in her naval career. She joined the Navy after graduating from high school and plans to retire when she hits 20 years of service.

"I found something I love, something new in the Navy that I love," she said. "I wouldn't have gotten bored with it."

Megan Stevenson, 25, trained at the Naval Submarine School in Groton, Conn., this spring before heading to the USS Louisiana in Bangor, Wash. Ms. Stevenson said she would sometimes get double takes.

"The way I look at submarines is kind of like an astronaut," said Stevenson, of Raymond, Maine. "It's a unique experience that so few people have done; I want to experience that."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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