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Submariners Prepare for Culture Changes

By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service

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.

 

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