Life in a metal tube: It’s not for everybody

By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 11, 2009

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Petty Officer 3rd Class Chad Kahl never suffered from a lack of open space while growing up in North Dakota.

When he told friends and family there that he had volunteered to live aboard a 350-foot-long metal tube underneath hundreds of feet of water, they thought he was crazy.

Kahl had done his homework on the submarine lifestyle. But as he prepared to get under way for the first time, he wondered if his friends may have had a point.

"I think everyone that goes doesn’t really know what they’re getting into," said Kahl of the USS Seawolf. "I had never been underneath water before. I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect."

Like most sub school graduates, Kahl adapted to his surroundings.

However, not everyone is made for sub duty, says Lt. Robert Lovern, a doctor with a psychiatry background and Submarine Group Seven’s undersea medical officer.

Claustrophobia, stress, unusual working conditions and lack of privacy can all lead prospective submariners right back out of the hatch.

"What gets people is the confinement and the inability to escape," Lovern said.

All sailors who volunteer for sub duty complete a screening questionnaire at Naval Submarine School in Groton, Conn.

If any red flags pop up, they are interviewed by medical personnel.

"When I got to my first submarine, I was very claustrophobic, very nervous, very timid," said 21-year sub veteran and Seawolf Chief of the Boat Jared Hofer of Freeman, S.D. "I used to have nightmares of the boat doing things where we didn’t come back. Obviously I survived. [Now] I feel safer on a submarine than I do on the surface."

Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Panciera, left, and petty officers second class Bryan Schartel and Kevin Beckstrand don their Emergency Air Breathing masks during a drill aboard the USS Seawolf on May 4. The connecting valves above them are located throughout the submarine, just in case the boat rapidly loses oxygen.

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