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First women serving aboard subs say 'culture shock' didn't last long

WASHINGTON — In January of 2011, the Navy banned smoking on submarines. That September, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy prohibiting gays from serving openly was repealed. And a few months after that, the first women began serving on U.S. submarines.

As an openly gay naval officer, a smoker and one of the first women to serve on a submarine, Lt. Rebecca Dremann joked she was “the triple trifecta coming onto the submarine.”

“I’m a total culture shock to the submarine force and they handled me just fine,” Dremann said Thursday after a roundtable hosted by the Navy to discuss the integration of women into the submarine force.

Other women — and men — who are completing their qualifications and have already spent time underway aboard submarines echoed Dremann’s sentiments, saying the biggest “problem” they’ve faced is sibling-like squabbles over the bathroom.

Vice Adm. John Richardson, commander of submarine forces, said the integration process has been “very successful.” Twenty-four women have already reported to guided missile and fleet ballistic missile submarines and about 20 more will report each year. Fast-attack submarines, which are smaller and would require more modifications to allow women aboard, are still men-only.

The Navy is moving very deliberately with the integration process and will gather information from the first gender-integrated submarines before determining whether to modify submarines to allow enlisted female sailors to serve aboard, or to allow women on fast-attack submarines.

“We want to open this opportunity as widely as we can, but we want to make sure it’s sustainable,” Richardson said.

Dremann said she jumped at the chance to serve on a sub, something she had wanted to do since she joined the Navy.

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After serving on an amphibious transport dock with just five female officers and 300 male sailors — and sometimes 1,200 male Marines — she is used to being part of a very small minority on board. And the tight spaces have not been an issue, she said.

“You’re so busy, you don’t notice how small the quarters are, because you’re either on watch, or you’re at work, or you’re in the rack,” Dremann said.

Lt. Britta Christianson said she also is used to being one of just two or three female officers on a ship, and that while there was some initial awkwardness on the sub, it went away quickly.

“At first, the guys were a little more timid just because they hadn’t worked with females on a day-to-day basis, but after a week they warmed up and we were just like brothers and sisters fighting for the bathroom, to get in in the morning,” she said. “We’re all sailors, if I’m on a surface ship or a submarine.”

And while the qualification process is difficult, she said, it’s worth it.

“When you hear the klaxon go off,” signaling that the submarine is diving, she said she thinks, “Oh my God, I’m on a submarine, this is so cool.”

As things start flying everywhere and she braces herself, Christianson said she can hardly believe what she’s doing.

“It’s the things like that that make it so awesome,” she said.

Lt. Emma Larenas agreed, saying that serving on a submarine has “been really exciting so far.”

“I hope it continues to open to everyone else,” she said.

hladj@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @jhlad

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