Friday, June 04, 2010

Up periscope

In general, I’m an anti-claustrophobe.

Having designed it many times in my head (since I was about 6 years old), I could probably live in reasonable comfort in a 200 square foot “home.” Maybe even 100 square feet.

Still, I don’t like the idea of being cooped up in a submarine.

Maybe it’s the lack of privacy. I’ve toured the captured U-Boat in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, and as much as I admired those perky blue-checked sheets, I don’t think I would have enjoyed spending much time down U.

I don’t imagine I would like never being able to step outside and enjoy the elements. No sticking out your tongue to catch a snowflake. No spotting the first robin red-breast. No stopping to smell the roses. No window shopping. No shopping, period.

Also, there’s the thought that the air might not be the freshest of the fresh. Especially because everyone couldn’t take a nice, long shower every time they wanted to – another problem I’d have with submarine life. Not to mention that if you’re at sea, make that under sea, for long periods of time, the food might not be the freshest of the fresh. We all know from The Caine Mutiny – yes, I know, that was a ship, not a submarine – that canned strawberries can be yummy. But I bet after a month in a sub, I’d have some powerful hankering for mixed greens.

But that was then – World War II – and this is now.

The submarines – like the one in The Hunt for the Red October - are more capacious than the tin cans of WWII vintage. Plus the sailors don’t look as scruffy, so maybe the showering’s better, too. The chow’s probably okay, what with frozen food improvements. Maybe with hydroponics and grow lights, you can even get a tomato.

Submarine life, however, has been a mystery to American women – even those in the U.S. Navy.

But that’s about to change.

Eleven new Annapolis grads are going snorkeling. They’ve been commissioned, and will be serving:

…in the deeply fraternal, claustrophobic confines of a nuclear submarine.

Two of these young ensigns are from Massachusetts – Elizabeth Hudson and Rachel Lessard – and the pair was written up in The Boston Globe the other day.

For Hudson, being a submariner is “being among the elite,” and that’s what she’s looking for. But, because submarine service is one of the last, male military bastions to fall, the decision to let women in is not without controversy.

… there is also resistance among submarine veterans to allowing women in the “Silent Service,’’ where deployments can last two months or more, quarters are severely tight, and men do not see their wives or girlfriends until each long patrol is finished.

Some critics are claiming that the radiation on the submarines can pose a risk to women’s reproductive systems. (If so, it probably can’t be doing men’s systems any good, either.)

One person who opposes the new policy, Elaine Donnelly, takes it a step further:

“There are health risks to women with emergency pregnancies,’’ such as ectopic pregnancies in which a fertilized egg is attached outside the womb, Donnelly said. Medical resources on submarines would be insufficient to treat such emergencies, she said, and captains would be placed in the difficult position of altering a mission to ensure the woman received treatment elsewhere.

Now, I don’t know whether there’s a doctor in the house on an average submarine, but it seems to me that a woman having an ectopic pregnancy while at sea, while surely demanding non-routine treatment, would be as common as a male sailor finding, say, a major lump on his privates. Or any sailor suffering from some other sort of medical emergency. So this “ectopic pregnancy” argument doesn’t really hold water.

The decision to allow women to serve on submarines was made after a task force, headed by an admiral who runs a sub base, made the recommendation to do so.

Some disgruntled vets (and some currently serving) claim that it just flat out “won’t work.”

Whether it will or not remains to be seen. And, while I find the idea of wanting to serve on a submarine unfathomable, I’m betting that it will – even though there may be new tensions introduced to what is already a fairly tense environment. (Also note that these are officers. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for enlisted female sailors to hop aboard a submarine any time soon.)

If you’re wondering what the digs are like:

Initially, two female ensigns and one supply officer will be assigned to each of two alternating crews for four submarines. While on board, they will be part of the 15 officers and 140 enlisted men who serve on the 560-foot-long vessels. The three women will be berthed together, and a Velcro sign will be flipped from “Men’’ to “Women’’ when they need to use the stalls in the single officers’ head.

Thank goodness for that Velcro sign. Wouldn’t want some guy in the next stall playing footsie with me.

No significant changes were necessary to accommodate women aboard the big submarines. In the Navy’s smaller attack submarines, any introduction of women might require some structural modifications.

Attack sub. Those must be the ones like the U-Boat I toured. If that’s the case, forget about structural modifications. Unless they make them bigger, I say, abandon all hope, ye women who enter here.

Lessard and Hudson are downplaying the concerns.

“That’s really not anything I’m not used to,’’ said Lessard, who cited her experience of three weeks on the ocean aboard a mixed-gender sailboat. “That’s way, way closer quarters than any submarine.’’

They’re also pooh-poohing the notion that they’re anything special.

“We’ve been called trailblazers, but to me it’s a coincidence more than anything,’’ said Hudson.

Lessard echoed that sentiment. “I didn’t do this to be the first person,’’ she said. “It was bound to happen.’’

The two won’t be ship-ahoying until 2012, as they have additional training to go through.

Good luck to both of them.

Up periscope.  Prepare to dive. Away all boats.

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