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Officer and a gentlewoman: Darlene Iskra made history as first female commander of a U.S. Navy ship | Kitsap Week
BREMERTON — When Darlene Iskra joined the Navy in early 1979, she was looking for a steady job with benefits.
She received much more: a successful career that would see her become the first female commander of a Navy ship.
"I knew I was the first (woman) and I felt a responsibility to show that equal opportunity works in the Navy," said Iskra, who recently moved to Bremerton.
Iskra's rise to command wasn't easy.
She began her Navy career at Officer Candidate School in Rhode Island. There, she spent 16 weeks in training. At OCS, she felt she was treated as an equal to her male counterparts. Iskra said one of the main objectives of OCS is to "break your civilian identity down and build you back up as a military person."
After OCS, Iskra went to the Navy Diving and Salvage Training Center. There, she was only one of two females in the class of 15 students. Again, she was treated just like her male classmates but for one exception: pull-ups. Men did pull-ups and the women did "hangs" (holding yourself from a bar). Other than that one accommodation, the women divers had to do the same number of sit-ups and push-ups and run and swim as fast as the men.
Iskra's body was evaluated for pressure and oxygen tolerance. The tests measured whether she could properly clear her ears and if her body efficiently absorbed oxygen.
"There were times I wanted to quit," Iskra said. Her one fellow female classmate kept her going. "She told me, 'You aren't quitting because I'm not staying here by myself.' "
Divers play an important role in the Navy. They are responsible for underwater ship repair and maintenance. They also do salvage and recovery work. In 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, Navy divers helped with the recovery effort.
Women divers take part in almost every aspect of Navy diving except one: combat swimming.
"That's going to change," Iskra said. "I really believe it will."
Following diving training, Iskra enrolled in the Surface Warfare Officers School. There she learned about navigating and piloting a ship.
"I'd practice in my car. Every time I wanted to turn, I'd call out 'right full rudder' or 'left full rudder,' " Iskra said.
After training for 20 months, Iskra was assigned to her first ship in December 1980. She was the diving officer onboard the USS Hector, a Navy repair ship. Iskra compared the USS Hector to a floating shipyard that traveled from port to port, taking care of maintenance needs.
While onboard the USS Hector, Iskra attained the rank of lieutenant. Then she hit a roadblock.
At the time, the Navy allowed women to serve on non-combat ships. Due to the Navy’s hierarchical rankings, and Iskra’s standing, she had to go to an on-shore command. She wasn’t happy about it. Other women in her situation left the Navy.
“In the mid-1980s, the Navy realized if they wanted to keep women, they needed to give women a viable career path,” Iskra said. “They opened a whole new set of ships that they suddenly determined were non-combatants.”
Iskra pushed to get reassigned to a ship. She felt that staying on shore was causing her to fall behind her peers.
“Once they opened the ships, I realized that some day I could become commander of one,” Iskra said. “But I had to actually be on a ship to do that.”
Iskra was back at sea in 1984.
In 1990, Iskra became the first female to command a Navy ship. She took command of the appropriately-named USS Opportune, a rescue and salvage ship.
Iskra and the USS Opportune were deployed overseas during Desert Storm.
“It was a responsibility I did not take lightly,” Iskra said. “I thought a lot about how I would react if we were attacked.”
Iskra said her promotion to commander caused a lot of jealousy, especially from her superiors.
During her first evaluation as commander, Iskra was ranked last in a squadron of five. Iskra was confused. No one else had been deployed to a war zone. And her ship had passed all of its inspections.
Why the low ranking? Iskra recalls her boss telling her, “You are a woman. It won’t hurt you. You’ll have other opportunities.”
“I was mad! But there was nothing I could do about it,” Iskra said. “You can’t impugn the motives of your superior. He gave me all A’s, so theoretically I didn’t have a negative evaluation. But being ranked 5/5 was negative. I should have been ranked first or second.”
Iskra retired from the Navy in 2000 but continued to pave the way for women.
In 2002, Iskra worked for Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., as a congressional fellow. While there, Iskra learned about Martha McSally. McSally was an Air Force combat fighter pilot who had been stationed in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War.
In Saudi Arabia, women in the Air Force were required to wear an abaya when they went off base. (An abaya is a traditional garment worn by Muslim women. It covers from head to toe.)
Not only were Air Force women told to wear the abaya, they were also instructed to abide by the local customs on how women should act in public.
Women weren’t allowed to drive and had to sit in the back seat. They had to walk behind the men.
McSally objected to the requirements, primarily because she considered herself a Christian woman and didn’t want to wear Muslim dress.
“My take on it was more secular,” Iskra said. “It’s undermining her authority as an officer. Here she is supposed to be leading these men and she has to dress in the abaya and walk behind them?”
Iskra brought this issue to Cantwell’s attention.
“She was all over it,” Iskra said.
Cantwell and Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire co-sponsored an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill. The amendment passed and forbade the Defense Department from requiring women to wearing the abaya.
“Unfortunately, it only referred to Saudi Arabia,” Iskra said. “Now women in Afghanistan are wearing head scarves … They are toting guns, with men in full combat gear, helmet and all, but they’re wearing headscarves. Come on! Talk about a force-protection issue.”
There have been many women commanders since Iskra. She’s tried to keep track, but the Navy doesn’t keep the records. In the 1990s, women were allowed to serve on combatant ships, which opened up even more advancement for women. And soon, females will be onboard submarines, a domain that has previously only allowed men.
By 2012, Bangor is scheduled to have one of the first submarines with females.
What does Iskra think about females on submarines? Iskra smiled and gave a big thumbs-up.
“The Navy still has a long way to go with women and submarine issues,” Iskra said. “They are starting out just like they did with women on ships ... they are starting on just one class of ships, which limits their career potential.”
Iskra said there is still a lot of resentment of women in general in the Navy. She cited a recent article in Proceedings magazine. The author of the article indicated that men were fired due to fraternizing with women aboard ships. The author said men should never have been fired for misconduct because it had nothing to do with their duties.
Iskra wrote a rebuttal.
“Excuse me, but when you are commanding officer of a ship, you are supposed to be held to higher standards,” Iskra said.
Iskra said the reason the Navy has fraternization rules to begin with is to remove any semblance of favoritism by the commanding officer. Your career is in the commanding officer’s hands. One person can write something bad about you, and your career is shot, she said.
“The other issue is power,” Iskra said. “If [the commanding officer] suggests maybe you should go on a date, and you don’t...maybe your fitness report won’t be as good. There is a power thing there.”
Reflecting on her time in the Navy, Iskra said, “I knew I wasn’t one of the guys, but I wasn’t going to be one of those women who complained every time a man told an off-color joke.”
It wasn’t the teasing or the bantering that bothered her. Instead, Iskra said it was the men who are really serious about hating women in their domain that bothered her.
Those people need to be screened out, she said. The Navy is coming down hard on anyone who indicates any “ism,” such as racism or sexism.
“People will complain that we are losing the best people … really? No, we aren’t.”
BOOK PRESENTATION: Cmdr. Darlene Iskra, USN (Ret.) authored “Women in the United States Armed Forces.” She will discuss her book and the future of women in the military on March 19, 2 p.m., at the Naval Undersea Museum, 1 Garnett Way, Keyport. Call (360) 396-5547 or visit www.navalunderseamuseum.org.