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Navy prepares submarines for 1st female officers

HARTFORD, Conn. — For Ensign Peggy LeGrand, the biggest concern about serving on a submarine is not spending weeks at a time in tight quarters with an entirely male crew. What worries her is the scrutiny that comes with breaking one of the last gender barriers in the U.S. military.

"I have a feeling more people will be focused on us. Our mistakes and successes will be magnified more than they deserve," said LeGrand, a 25-year-old Naval Academy graduate from Amarillo, Texas.

LeGrand is among a small group of female officers who are training at sites including Groton, Conn., to join the elite submarine force beginning this year. While the Navy says it is not treating them any differently from their male counterparts, officials have been working to prepare the submarine crews — and the sailors' wives — for one of the most dramatic changes in the 111-year history of the Navy's "silent service."

The initial class of 24 women will be divided among four submarines, where they will be outnumbered by men by a ratio of roughly 1-25. The enlisted ranks, which make up about 90 percent of a sub's 160-sailor crew, are not open to women although the Navy is exploring modifications to create separate bunk areas for men and women.

The female officers, many of them engineering graduates from Annapolis, are accustomed to being in the minority, and so far they say they hardly feel like outsiders. The nuclear power school that is part of their training, for example, has been open to women for years because the Navy in 1994 reversed a ban on females serving on its surface ships, including nuclear-powered vessels.

At the U.S. Navy's submarine school in Groton, where eight women were among dozens who recently completed the 10-week officer basic course, Ensign Kristin Lyles said the presence of the first class of females bound for submarine duty was not even remarked upon at this month's graduation ceremony.

"I understand the reason why. It was never explained but it was kind of implied that while we're going through training, as soon as they started calling attention to it in that way, it's singling us out," said Lyles, 23, of Fairfax Station, Va. "In my experience, I am no different from the guy sitting next to me in all my classes."

A submarine group spokesman, Lt. Brian Wierzbicki, said the Navy would not facilitate photographs or interviews with the female submariners because it does not want to distract them from training or make them feel different from their male peers.

The female officers will report to their submarines starting in late November or early December. All of the vessels are guided-missile attack submarines or ballistic-missile submarines, which are relatively large by submarine standards. They are the USS Wyoming and USS Georgia, based in Kings Bay, Ga., and the USS Maine and USS Ohio, with their home port in Bangor, Wash.

The change is a source of anxiety for some, including the wives of submariners, who worry the close contact at sea could lead to sailors' cheating.

"The issue really has to do with the creation of a relationship that becomes very close and then results in further relations ashore. That is, of course, what bothers the wives. They know the kind of relationships that happen between the shipmates," said retired Navy Rear Adm. W.J. Holland Jr., a former submarine commander.

Navy prepares submarines for 1st female officers 07/24/11 [Last modified: Sunday, July 24, 2011 9:37pm]
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