America TonightMon-Fri 9:30pm ET/6:30pm PT

In the same boat: Navy integrates women aboard submarines

In 2016, subs will welcome their first enlisted women and some female veterans are sounding the alarm

For 110 years, the United States’ “silent service” was a dedicated brotherhood. Then four years ago, the Navy invited female officers aboard its ballistic missile submarines.

Lt. Leanne Riley is one of only four female officers traveling the depths of the ocean with a crew of nearly 150 men. She took “America Tonight” on a rare tour aboard an active-duty nuclear submarine, at Naval Base Kitsap in Washington state, which involved our TV crew's going through three levels of high security.

The submarine is 560 feet long, and interior space is at a premium. Hallways are only about two feet wide. Every room serves more than one purpose. An officer’s recreation room doubles as an emergency surgical center. Riley explained that in areas such as the tiny supply support area, there could be as many as four logistics specialists working and repairing parts.

As a supply officer, she says, she’s in “the supply shack” for probably 10 hours a day. Long hours in tight spaces are the reality of life aboard a submarine. And crew members spend up to three months at sea, with no windows or privacy.

But Riley brushes off any suggestion that the extraordinary male-female ratio in such extraordinary circumstances creates any serious discomfort.

“We are all professional sailors together,” she said. “I am respected as a lieutenant in the United States Navy, and I respect them for the service that they do every day.”

The Navy is in the midst of a historic integration plan. More than 45 female officers now serve on submarine crews, and another 53 are in the training pipeline — a sliver of the more than 22,000 sailors who serve in the submarine force. In 2016 subs will welcome their first enlisted women. And the military hopes that by 2020, women will make up 20 percent of the enlisted crew on seven of those submarines.

But those women won’t be afforded the same privacy or authority as the officers who paved the way.

Fighting two wars

Beckie Wilson enlisted in the Navy at 24. She said she wanted to see the world.

“I just thought it would be exciting,” she said. “My brother-in-law was in the Navy. My cousin was in the Navy. And I loved the stories they told.”

But she wouldn't end up telling many of her stories.

She said she had a chief who stalked her and followed her home and at one point threatened her with a low evaluation if she didn't have sex with him. She refused and reported it to her superior.

“He just looked at me, and he said, ‘Boys will be boys, and that’s just the way things are,’” she said. “And I was still pretty naive, so I accepted it instead of standing up and fighting it.”

After that, things got much worse for Wilson. She said she was raped a couple of times, but kept it buried inside until recently. She stayed in the Navy for 20 years and doesn't regret her service. But she’s still haunted by her sexual assaults.

Beckie Wilson told “America Tonight” about sexual abuse she suffered while in the Navy.
America Tonight

“It’s like women are fighting two wars,” Wilson said. “They’re fighting one war with the men that are supposed to be by their side” while they’re fighting for their country.

The introduction of enlisted women onto submarines is worrisome for many who have led the charge against sexual assault in the military. Every integration poses risks, but on submarines in particular, enlisted women will be vastly outnumbered in often claustrophobic quarters, with nowhere else to go.

Staterooms, for example, where officers often sleep and spend personal time, usually berth three people. Enlisted crew members’ rooms are slightly bigger but berth nine.

The Defense Department’s most recent report on sexual assault found that the vast majority of victims were young enlisted women. Officers represent fewer than 6 percent of reported assaults.

Acknowledging the problem

"I know that officers have a very different experience than enlisted,” said Sarah Blum, a retired Army captain and nurse who interviewed dozens of female vets for her book “Women Under Fire,” detailing sexual abuse in the military.

“We know that there are 26,000 sexual assaults per year, and that’s probably only a fraction of them,” she added. “I believe the military could stand strong and tall and demonstrate how to change it. But they’re not accepting that it’s there, that there is a culture of abuse toward women.”

The Navy says it’s aware of the problem.

“Sexual assault and sexual harassment are kind of societal issues that we in the Navy, we also experience those, because we’re a component of society and that’s where we come from,” said Lt. Cmdr. Brian Badura, a senior public affairs official for the Navy. “And it’s an issue that we take seriously and we’re dealing with.”

Lt. Leanne Riley, center, talks to Al Jazeera’s Tonya Mosley, left.
America Tonight

As Riley wears her coveted dolphins — insignia marking submarine warfare qualification, one of the highest achievements for a submariner — she understands she’s forging a path.

“When this opportunity opened up, it was a chance to continue to improve myself professionally but then also to share my experience … with junior women who were going to make careers of submarines,” she said.

And when Riley stepped on board, her commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Erik Lundberg didn't see any issue.

“I served before on two fast-attack submarines that were exclusively male, but I’ve come to find out that it is a nonevent,” he said. "It is a nonevent. It is a nonissue.”

More from America Tonight

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter