Going where no woman's gone before

Tuesday, October 27, 2009
(Photo contributed) Kayla Kelly, member of the U.S. Navy, spends time with her dad Dan Kelly, the Le Mars postmaster, at a Navy event this summer. Kelly hopes to be one of the first women serving on Navy submarines.

Earlier this fall the impossible started to look possible for Kayla Kelly.

Kelly, the daughter of Le Mars Postmaster Dan Kelly and his wife Barb, wants to be among the first women to serve on a U.S. Navy submarine.

The Navy's tradition is male-only submarine crews. In fact, women were only allowed to serve on surface combat ships starting in 1993.

091020-N-1772W-210 APRA HARBOR, Guam (Oct. 20th, 2009) The fast-attack submarine USS Los Angeles (SSN 688) transits near Apra Harbor, Guam after returning from an underway period. Los Angeles, the 4th naval ship to be named after the city of Los Angeles and the lead ship of her class, is on her last deployment. Los Angeles has been operating at sea for 33 years and is scheduled for decommissioning later this year. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Trevor Welsh/Released)

But in September, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the top U.S. military officer, publicly pushed for allowing women to serve on submarines.

"I believe we should continue to broaden opportunities for women," Mullen said in a statement released to the press.

For Kelly, this news was exciting both personally and for women in general.

(U.S. Navy Photo by John Narewski/Released) The Los Angeles class submarine USS Helena (SSN 725) gets underway from Submarine Base New London to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. The submarine will be undergo extended maintenance, including several system upgrades over the next 18 months.

"I know women have a lot to offer. We do our jobs well," she said in a phone interview from Charleston, S.C., where she's training to be a nuclear mechanic for the Navy.

"A lot of people have mixed views of how women actually act," she said. "The thing is, we haven't really had the chance to prove ourselves yet."

There will be people who don't do their job or who are lazy anywhere you go, male or female, she said.

"I don't want to live underneath 'Oh, she's a girl, she can't do that,'" Kelly said. "I want to break that stereotype."

Navy submarines with crews of about 140 men have small bunk rooms with nine beds squeezed in. The two crew bathrooms have a total of four showers and seven toilets. Narrow passageways make for crew members rubbing against each other when passing.

Critics of changing policy to allow women aboard submarines say putting men and women together in such cramped quarters while spending weeks underwater is a bad plan -- possibly leading to sexual harassment suits and more.

"A lot of people are concerned about what happens if a female finds out she's pregnant on the submarine or gets pregnant while she's on the submarine," Kelly said. "It's a lot of stuff to deal with."

Proponents for the change call for giving equal opportunity to men and women.

A lot of women are interested in serving on submarines, Kelly said.

If women are allowed to serve on submarines, the berth, or bunk, areas might need to be reconstructed for privacy, she pointed out.

Kelly also talked to several instructors, many of them submarine veterans, about the possible change for women.

"They say it's a completely different atmosphere on a submarine just because it's all male," she said.

Right now, Kelly is actually working on a decommissioned submarine in Charleston. All women in the nuclear program train on a decommissioned submarine before completion.

"It's kind of ironic," she said.

She's training to run and maintain the submarine's nuclear system -- one of the last steps in her training.

If she does well, she hopes to stay in Charleston and train others as a junior staff.

"If that doesn't happen I'll go straight out to a ship," Kelly said.

But her real dream is to serve on a submarine.

"Coming from a smallish town, submarines only have a couple hundred people on them, so it's definitely more of a tight-knit community," Kelly said.

Life on a submarine is hard, she said.

The crew operates not on a 24-hour day but a 16-hour day, which can be challenging to adjust to.

"And there's not going to be any replacement for you if something happens. So you definitely get good at your job," Kelly said. "And that's what I want to do. I want to be the best at what I can do, so I think a submarine would be a place to do that."

She might get a chance to test her words.

Female officers will probably be on submarines by 2010 or 2011, if the change is approved, she said.

"They say at the naval academy they're interviewing people right now to see which women want to do it and if they're qualified," Kelly said.

But she's not an officer -- she's considered "enlisted." To become one, Kelly would have to get a four-year degree, attend the naval academy or take a special program.

"Their strategy right now is they need female officers to go on there so they can teach women to lead," Kelly explained.

Next, senior enlisted women will get the option, she said.

"I'm hoping by the time they let senior enlisted on, I will be a senior enlisted," she said.

This is better news than expected, Kelly said, because before this time, most people told her women would be allowed on submarines, but probably not during her years of service.

The change is on the "fast track" now, Kelly said.

"My entire time in the Navy so far, I've been asking about this," she said. "The sooner the better."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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