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Originally published October 9, 2009 at 12:16 AM | Page modified October 9, 2009 at 11:22 AM

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Will Navy let women serve on submarines?

Submarine service, long among the last of the Navy's male-only bastions, could soon be in for a drastic change after Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he would like to see the Navy change its rule barring women from submarine service. At Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, the idea has long been batted around.

Seattle Times staff reporter

BANGOR, Kitsap County — Amy Augustine knows there are many wives and girlfriends who despise the idea of women serving at sea alongside their men in cramped submarines for months at a time, but she isn't among them.

"I have no problem with that," said Augustine, 25, who is married to a submariner assigned to the Trident-class USS Ohio. "I trust my husband."

Her friend Trina Lopez, the wife of a Navy corpsman, agrees.

"Women should have every opportunity men have," said Lopez, 33, whose husband is not assigned to a submarine. "But everybody needs to be an adult, and the Navy should have them sign a waiver admitting that the guys are rude and crude and you're not going to call harassment."

Submarine service, long among the last of the Navy's male-only bastions, could soon be in for a drastic change after Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he would like to see the Navy change its rule barring women from submarine service.

In response, Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, issued a statement this week in which he said he is "very comfortable addressing integrating women" into the force, but added, "There are some particular issues ... we must work through."

The idea of women serving on submarines is old news in and around Bangor, where Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor is home to eight of the nation's 14 SSBN-class submarines and two of its four SSGNs. The issue has been kicked around for years, say former and current sailors.

"You have to remember, this was out on the table in the '90s," said Eric Barnes, of Bremerton, who spent most of his 20 years in the Navy as a missile technician on fast-attack and Trident-class subs, most recently the USS Georgia.

The official arguments against women serving in the "silent service" often focused on the crews' lengthy deployments, the boats' cramped quarters and the difficulty creating gender-separated sleeping and toilet facilities in the confined space.

Unofficial arguments against integration, which still appear in Web discussions on the topic, include the potential for romantic entanglements, pregnancies, plumbing problems and the outcry of some Navy wives.

"Just about every Navy wife I talked to did not like the idea one bit," said Barnes. "They felt secure that when their husbands went to sea, they didn't have to worry about them."

"But," he added, "when women went into combat, you knew it was coming. If you can let them be shot at, you can put them in a submarine."

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Lt. Cmdr. John Daniels, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon, said that female officers could begin training as early as next year and report to ballistic-missile and cruise-missile submarines by 2011. Many of those women could be sent to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor.

The conversion to mixed-gender crews would begin with the Trident submarines because they're much larger than fast-attack subs and "appear to require less modification," Daniels said. "It would allow us to move out more quickly as we implement women into the submarine corps."

On fast-attack submarines, approximately 150 personnel live in space the size of a three-bedroom house. Officers sleep in three-person staterooms, each the size of a small closet, and all 15 of them share a single shower, sink and toilet.

For female officers to live on the submarines, some three-person berths would be reserved for them and they would share the bathroom — known as a "head" — with men in a time-sharing arrangement. The submarines would have to be modified to provide adequate privacy for enlisted women and men, senior officers said.

Some local sailors, though, don't welcome the idea.

"We feel like we won't be able to walk around or talk a certain way," said a young submariner who was at the Horse and Cow, a Kitsap County bar popular with submariners, on Wednesday night.

"Plus, don't a lot of women have mood swings? I'm pretty sure they are more emotional than men and they could crack under stress," said the sailor, who didn't want to give his name or his billet.

He went on to say, however, that he believes the first women who served on submarines would be well qualified, professional and "super high up."

Steve Sheets, 51, of Bremerton, who will retire in 10 months from a Navy career that included 14 years on subs, said he thinks the change will be difficult, especially for sailors who have spent 18 to 20 years doing it one way. But, ultimately, he thinks it will turn out fine.

"Once it's done," he said, "I don't think it's even going to turn out to be that big of a deal."

Information from The Washington Post and Scripps Howard News Service is included in this report.

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