When, during one of her first days of classes at the University of Michigan’s Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps program, Jeanne Van Gilder was asked what career path she wanted to follow in the Navy, she was clear: if the opportunity opened up, she’d like to serve in the submarine force.
“By the time I got into college it was almost a matter of time. They’d been talking about it for a few years at that point so I kind of kept my fingers crossed,” the 29-year-old Van Gilder said in an interview this week.
In the spring of 2010, toward the end of her freshman year of college, the U.S. Navy announced it was lifting its ban on women serving on submarines, first allowing female officers to begin their training. At that point Van Gilder knew “it came down to making sure I had the qualifications.”
Van Gilder is from Webberville, a one-stoplight town in Michigan, and grew up the youngest of four children. Her dad served in the Navy, working as a design engineer for Naval Reactors, which oversees the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program.
“Even though he didn’t serve on submarines, he had some good submarine stories,” she said. “I always thought they were the coolest pieces of equipment, technological marvels, and I knew the (submarine) community was very small, which I was interested in being a part of, given I’m from a small town.”
Female officers like Van Gilder, a lieutenant commander assigned to the fast attack submarine USS Minnesota based in Groton, have served aboard submarines since 2011. Enlisted women began their training in 2015 and started reporting to submarines a year later.
Previously, the Navy had dedicated windows for female sailors to apply to convert their careers into submarine ratings. Now, new volunteers are able to apply on a continuous basis, just like men. Starting in 2021, Virginia-class attack submarines will have “gender neutral accommodations,” separate chiefs’ quarters and berthing for men and women.
Currently, 335 women — 97 officers and 238 enlisted sailors — are serving on submarines, making up about 5% of the silent service.
“We’re still a small percentage. There’s not that many of us, so we’re kind of our own little club,” Van Gilder said, adding that the integration of women aboard submarines has gone “extremely well.”
When she reported to the guided missile submarine USS Florida based in Kings Bay, Ga., “I was old news,” Van Gilder said. Women already had been serving on the boat for a few years. “It was the norm,” she said.
She was among the first group of female officers who helped serve as mentors to the enlisted women as they reported to submarines already integrated, helping them to adjust to life in a steel tube under the water, and providing advice to senior male officers who may not have served with females before.
“I definitely feel a responsibility to prove all the naysayers wrong,” Van Gilder said. “That doesn’t necessarily change the way I act. I’m going to act in a professional manner and I want to do my job well for me, but I’m certainly aware of the specific spotlight on myself and other women in the Navy to prove the naysayers are wrong.”
By all accounts, the transition has gone smoothly with a few exceptions. A dozen male sailors were prosecuted in 2015 for secretly videotaping female officers and trainees as they undressed on board the ballistic missile submarine USS Wyoming. And in May of last year, Navy leaders fired Capt. Gregory R. Kercher, commanding officer of Florida’s “Gold Crew,” for failing to fully investigate a sexually explicit list targeting female crewmembers.
Those incidents appear not to have impacted retention. An analysis by the Associated Press in 2018 found that the retention rate for female submariners was on par with that of their male counterparts — about 26% and 27%, respectively. And numbers provided by the Navy for this article show that trend has continued.
In June 2020, Van Gilder reported to the Minnesota as the boat’s engineering officer, a job that involves overseeing the maintenance and operation of the nuclear reactor on board, and leading the 50 to 60 sailors — a little more than one-third of the crew — who are assigned to the engineering department.
Looking ahead, she said, “I’m excited to see the day when women being on submarines is not a surprise to people.”
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