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Would you believe me if I told you that I once headed to the Navy Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Illinois, to begin my training as a Naval Nuclear Electrician’s Mate? It seems like a lifetime ago, but it’s true. I was the only female Nuclear Electrician’s Mate in my entire class at the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command in Charleston, SC. I was naive when I left for boot camp; it hadn’t even crossed my mind that I was about to enter a field dominated by men, or that my gender could impact my career trajectory. Today I’m thankful that I can join the Strength Has No Gender™ campaign in celebration of International Women’s Day by sharing the story of my personal experience in this male-dominated field.
“Why did you go into the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program?” I’m asked that question a lot, and there’s no simple answer. Rather, a number of factors converged to make it appealing. The Navy began recruiting me shortly after I took the ASVAB (Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery). I had high test scores, and I hadn’t ruled out a career in the military since many of my family members had also served in the military. My parents divorced while I was a freshman in high school, and I was the oldest of four children. They couldn’t afford to help me pay for college, and I knew that I would be footing my own bill. The sign-on bonuses for the Nuclear Propulsion program were some of the highest that the military offered, and my recruiter told me that qualified nuclear field personnel were released to finish college and then come back as Naval Nuclear Propulsion Officers. (The program was once referred to as nuclear engineering, but that was too easily confused with other military nuclear fields.)
When I headed off to Navy boot camp, I was not prepared. I had spent my last summer at home working as a lifeguard and enjoying being around my friends. I hadn’t been running as much as I should have. I hadn’t been waking up in the wee hours of the morning to start my day. When I arrived at Recruit Training Command, I was placed in a co-ed 900 division. Our division was trained to perform special functions at Pass-In-Review (graduation ceremonies). I became a Recruit Petty Officer for our division and I was assigned to play the Boatswain’s Pipe during arrival honors for the Reviewing Officer and the Official Party. When we weren’t completing typical boot camp tasks, we were prepping and rehearsing for performing at the weekly graduation ceremony.
Being in a co-ed 900 division during Navy recruit training slightly skewed my views on the male to female ratio in the Navy. I hadn’t considered that I was entering a primarily male field until I reached Naval Nuclear Power Training Command (NNPTC). My boot camp division was nearly a 50/50 ratio of male to female; in stark contrast, I was the only woman in my NNPTC section. The other two women in NNPTC class had been placed in other sections, we only saw each other occasionally during meal times, study hall and physical training. I never had a female instructor at NNPTC, and I don’t recall meeting one during my year there. The Navy operates 71 nuclear powered submarines and 10 aircraft carriers (each housing two nuclear reactors); currently, women can only serve on aircraft carriers. Given that constraint, you can see why the numbers would be considerably higher for male Nuclear Propulsion Program recruits.
“How hard was Naval Nuclear Power School?” People also ask me that a lot. I won’t lie; the curriculum is tough, but the pace was the real challenge. They take what would typically be 2-3 years of college level mathematics, nuclear physics, chemistry, thermodynamics, material science and power theory, and cram it into a year-long program. We would attend class from 8am until 3-4pm with one hour lunch break. Our school day didn’t end there; the materials we studied were classified, so all studying had to be done within the building. Students would typically eat dinner, participate in some type of physical training, and then try to relax for a few minutes before heading back to the schoolhouse to study for the evening.
During our Power School graduation, close family and friends were permitted on campus to attend; one of my classmates went to introduce me to his family and his much younger sister spoke up and said, “You went to school with a bunch of boys?” I laughingly replied, “Yes, I went to school with lots of boys.” She replied, “Do you miss having friends?” I replied, “I have lots of friends here…. but most of the time I feel like I have more than enough brothers looking after me.” I adjusted to working primarily with men and I developed lifelong friendships with some of my classmates and instructors at NNPTC.
I’m thankful to have had role models who believed that Strength Has No Gender™. I’m not sure that I would have had the courage to enter the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program if my family and friends had questioned by decision to enlist. The women at NNPTC faced a set of unique challenges, but none that were so demanding that they couldn’t overcome them if they desired.
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The next time you’re out shopping, I hope you’ll look for the exclusive to Walmart, limited-edition, Strength Has No Gender™ pack.