Krysten Ellis

Why I Volunteered for Submarine Duty

Since my recent move to Washington, D.C., I have found that, more and more, I am approached in uniform due to the gold dolphins on my chest. Some are curious, many supportive, and others are confused. They seek clarification on why a woman might want to join the submarine service. To quote a majority: “What on Earth made you want to do THAT?” While I could simplify the answer to their satisfaction, the answer is more complicated and unique to the story of my life around the Navy. I was recently asked to share that story. I hope you find it as compelling as I do. 

My childhood revolved around naval bases, specifically with those I like to call the submarine family. My father was a career submariner and my mother served as an Army journalist before her discharge to follow his career and raise me. Needless to say, Army-Navy games were always interesting. Seriously though, I mention my mother because she was also a major part of the submarine family, those family members frequently left behind in the defense of our nation. Among military families, there is a common understanding about our transitional life and its challenges, most military families experience and cope with the same difficulties, but submarine life is uniquely more difficult with its communication and typically classified nature.

Many of my playmates and I knew what a homecoming meant, or, conversely, the long deployment extensions and the missing father figure. In that absence, the extended submarine family fills in. Just as there is camaraderie on the boat, there is a strong bond at home while submariners are away too. That background molded me to be strong, independent and self-sufficient. It also showed me how to make the most of a less-than-ideal situation.Krysten Ellis Insert

My earliest introductions to boat life included my first lobster dinner in the wardroom, running through Sherwood Forest (between the missile tubes, for you fast boat guys) and playing in the Dive and Drive trainers. Perhaps most memorable, around age 6 or 7, I flooded the CO’s stateroom because I forgot to secure flushing water. My poor XO father got an earful and relentless ribbing.

Strangely, I remember the horrible times fondly as well. After a sailor died, I saw the entire boat take care of his family. The guys, the wives and girlfriends, and the kids ALL pitched in to show that widow she was not alone. From the tragedy, I learned the submarine community takes care of its own and it was our honor to do so.

THAT is what made me want to become a submariner. THAT is what the brotherhood is about. It is not just a brotherhood or the machismo of being exclusively men. It has never just been men.

The girlfriends, wives, sons and daughters are all part of that magic. I experienced it as a child, but I craved it as an adult, too. I excelled in math and science, so I thought I could apply for submarines through university ROTC and pursued engineering. Submarines were not an option at the time and many of my peers made fun of me for even thinking it was possible. Somewhat dejected, I looked for an alternative. After finding an officer program to teach at Nuclear Power School, I thought that would put me in the perfect position to hear about any future possibilities.

After four years, the Navy was finally discussing submarine integration, but the timing would likely not support my dream. Accepting that I would never serve on a boat, I still wanted to serve in the Navy and applied for lateral transfer into several communities. In the end, two communities offered me a position, of which I selected the Supply Corps. Previously, I had never heard of the community, but once I found out that submarines had a Supply Officer, all of my chips were down. There was still a chance.

Going from engineering to the business side of the Navy was a rough transition for me, in terms of culture shock. Going from teaching reactor theory to selling candy bars made me seriously question my decision-making abilities, but I finally put it in perspective that leadership is leadership no matter your title. The men and women with whom I served, nuke or supply rating, were the reason I went to work each day. Each new experience taught me to appreciate my new community, even if it had landed me on a surface ship in the middle of the Gulf and not on a submarine. That might have been a good end to my story, content with my life decisions and becoming a more mature officer in the process. But fate was not quite finished with me.

News articles held snippets of information and I used social media to promote my thoughts on submarine integration. When the pilot program Women in Submarines was announced, I was ecstatic and could not believe that my lifelong dream might come true. Some of my ideas were being implemented which would account for my seniority. Whether the integration team had come up with the idea or used social media inputs, it made sense to have a more senior woman assigned during an integration process. She could mentor the junior women and be a sounding board and litmus test for the rest of the boat’s leadership. I immediately applied for the program and within a few months I had interviewed with COMSUBFOR and had orders to Sub School and my first boat.

It would be a long road with more rough spots than anyone expected. Witch hunts, leadership challenges, perceptions, behavioral tendencies… conflict and resolution that I would not and could not change. They were overwhelmingly not integrationrelated and made me who I am today. The organizational culture hurdles, at times, were skewed to look gender-related, but mostly were not. By and large, people off the boats made more of a fuss over the changes, while the individual commands tried to stick to business as usual.

The traditions of the submarine force are rooted in technical ability, training, and faith in one another, regardless of background. That did not, and never will, change from something like integration, not in the world’s best and brightest submarine force. Toward the end of my tour, I found that submarine family I had been looking for. I found a home. THAT is why I volunteered for submarine service. It was my most unachievable (or so I thought) goal that became a reality.

The submarine-specific smell of amine usually isn’t pleasant for anyone. But for me as a kid, it meant my Dad was home. Amine equated to a homecoming and I still love that smell to this day. It reminds me not only of my father, but also the family I made on my two boats.

I will never serve on another submarine, but my professional and personal life has been irrevocably changed and I’m happy I took the path I did. As Frost wrote, “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” 

Krysten J. Ellis


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