Joe Daraskevich, The Florida-Times Union
19 February 2018
ST. MARYS, GA. – Capt. Gregory Kercher spent about a week on an Australian diesel-powered submarine back in 2006 as part of a command course to prepare for a position as the executive officer on a U.S. Navy submarine.
The Royal Australian Navy had already integrated the submarine force, and Kercher was impressed by how well men and women worked together on the vessel.
He said he knew at the time that the United States would one day make the transition from an all-male submarine culture to one allowing women to serve, but there was no telling how long that change would take.
Twelve years later, he's playing a major role in the transition at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Southeast Georgia by leading one of the first crews at the installation mixed with enlisted male and female submariners.
"If we tried to do this 15 to 20 years ago in a sudden manner, I think it would have been difficult," Kercher said. "We wouldn't have been prepared for it, and it probably wouldn't have went off as seamless as it has."
Each submarine uses a two-crew concept - blue and gold - to alleviate the long periods of time spent at sea. Kercher took over as the commanding officer of the gold crew on the Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Florida in September. His counterpart, Capt. Brett Moyes, is leading the blue crew.
Kercher said his crew will be ready to deploy for the first time in a few months thanks to careful planning by the Navy that allowed the integration process to unfold one step at a time.
First, female officers started serving on submarines in 2011. Then enlisted women joined the crews of the USS Michigan in Bangor, Wash., in 2016. Now the Navy has made the transition on the East Coast with the two crews of the Florida.
ASKING FOR ADVICE
"I had a lot of thoughts over the six months leading up to the time when I was coming to take over and become the commanding officer," Kercher said.
So he reached out to his peers for advice on how to handle the new environment. He said he talked to some who had served with female officers on submarines, and he reached out to personnel on the Michigan to see how it went when the first enlisted women joined.
Kercher said most of the advice he received dealt with low-level issues like how the modifications worked out with berthing and bathrooms. There wasn't much advice on how to deal with actual crew members getting along, Kercher said, because for the most part they were focused on the mission instead of the difference in gender.
He said the Navy did a great job of setting up berthing without taking away very much space for the men.
One obvious difference Kercher noticed was the chief petty officer quarters were altered to accommodate three people in each one, allowing for three women to live in one of the spots together.
The same is true of the bunk rooms for enlisted sailors in the missile compartments, he said. The submarines already had nine-person bunk rooms, and now some of them are designated for women with bathrooms nearby.
PLENTY OF PRIVACY
Kercher said the idea that Navy submarines are places without privacy is a common misconception that goes back to World War II when the vessels were much smaller. It's not like current submarines have as much room as surface ships, he said, but there are definitely doors on all the toilet and shower stalls.
"I just don't think that we had that many privacy concerns before, and I really don't think about that now," he said.
The crew completed a training drill recently with special forces and Navy SEALS on board. Kercher said the total compliment on the vessel was about 240 people, and the major concern was how to feed everybody. Privacy wasn't an issue.
"I would say many of the female sailors are helping take care of the problems we are working on rather than there being problems because of them," Kercher said.
Neither Kercher, his executive officer or the chief of the boat have any experience serving with women on board a submarine, so they've been relying on some of the women on the crew to help work through any potential issues related to gender that might come along.
"Sometimes we might over-think things," Kercher said. "But I'd rather we over-think and plan properly."
He said the men on his crew were getting used to the idea of women joining them well before he arrived. Discussions started as soon as the decision was made to involve the Florida in the integration process, and it helped that the modifications were made in dry dock at Kings Bay so the sailors could monitor the progress.
"It remains an all-volunteer force. If somebody wanted to step up and say 'I no longer want to serve on a submarine,' they could have certainly done that," Kercher said. "We've had none of that."
FITTING IN NICELY
Kercher said he's been impressed with the attitude displayed by the women and their willingness to work hard to fit in, but he's also impressed with the behavior of the men.
He said there's always been an unwritten rule to look after sailors who are serving on submarines for the first
time. They seem to be meshing just like they would if all the newcomers were men, Kercher said.
"The rest of the crew sees this as the same opportunity I see, and they see it as a pride thing for the Florida," he said.
Kercher said it's obvious through interacting with his crew that the women share that same sense of pride. They don't necessarily show it outwardly because they are so focused on the mission, he said.
"They won't go out of their way to show that pride, but it's there, it's evident all the time," Kercher said. "They just don't want to make it about themselves."
In some cases serving on a submarine is a lifelong goal for the women, Kercher said, but they aren't thinking of themselves as pioneers. He said they just want to be thought of as submariners just like the rest of the crew.
FIRST TO EARN PIN
A member of the blue crew just cemented her place on the vessel by becoming the first junior enlisted woman to earn her enlisted submarine warfare pin, or "dolphins," this year while the submarine was underway.
Fire Control Technician 2nd Class Jasmine Kiernan-Rolen was required to qualify as petty officer of the deck, topside roving patrol and numerous in-rate qualifications in order to receive the pin. She also was required to perform damage-control functions and demonstrate proficiency in the various areas of submarining.
"It feels incredible to be a part of such a tightly woven community, and it's an honor to earn the right to wear the Navy's first qualification pin," Kiernan-Rolen said. "The guys here have been both tough but inspiring."
The leaders from the Florida and Michigan recently got together to talk about their experiences over the last six months. But they moved on from the topic of women pretty quickly, and the conversation turned to operating in a deployed status, Kercher said.
Moyes said the talent level of the women on the blue crew has made the integration process smooth and successful. Kercher echoed that sentiment and was excited about the prospect of the first enlisted woman on the gold crew going through her qualification board recently in the hopes of receiving her pin.
FORCE GETTING STRONGER
The women on both Florida crews amount to about 30 total, with a handful of them being officers. More are expected to arrive soon, just in time for deployment.
Kercher said it's a universal thought that the U.S. submarine force is the greatest in the world, and adding enlisted women to the equation is only going to make it better.
"We need that constant infusion of the best talent possible in order to maintain the submarine force as the best in the world," Kercher said.
He said by opening the pool of candidates to the female population in the United States, the Navy is going to have a whole new group of talented submariners that weren't available before.
Kercher said the deliberate integration process took a long time to accomplish, but it was the right way to do it to ensure a smooth transition.
Soon it will be time to see how they do on deployment.