David Larter, Navy Times
26 October 2015
Sailor issues were on the docket at the annual unclassified gathering of the Silent Service in late October, from the expanding number of female submariners to the resiliency of junior sailors.
Leaders discussed new approaches to handling stress and mental health and their planning as enlisted women enter the submarine fleet over the next year. Some highlights:
A submariner is medevaced from their sub every 14 days for mental health issues, an issue the Submarine community is trying to tackle through better access to mental health care, the Atlantic Fleet's top enlisted bubblehead said Oct. 22.
Mental health issues account for about 30 percent of the unplanned losses — where sailors leave the fleet for reasons other than normal rotation or temporary assigned duty, Force Master Chief Wes Koshoffer said.
It's a trait that is pronounced among the millennial generation now populating the lower ranks, with most losses among sailors E-1 to E-6.
"I'm a fan of millennials all day long: They are smart, capable, driven — they are getting the job done," Koshoffer said. "But there is a flaw in the system, and that's this millennial phenomenon that the reaction to discipline, failure or rejection, generally [elicits] a response disproportionate to what you would expect."
Setbacks and challenges can cause tumult, even suicidal thoughts for younger sailors.
"A first breakup with a girlfriend, maybe they fail a qualification board and they've never failed anything before ... and the first words out of their mouths are 'I'm going to kill myself.'"
The force is trying to get ahead of the problem by improving crisis lines and making sure sailors aren't stigmatized for reporting mental health issues, an important step toward lowering the Navy's suicide toll.
"We cannot rewire an entire generation, but we can adjust, we can change the environment," he said.
Fleet areas now have an embedded mental health professional who works with chaplains to better address the issues.
"We've trained ourselves on how to react, we don't overreact," he said. "We take them off the ship, get them help ... and when we get the 'go' signal from a mental health professional, we get them right back in the force instead of overreacting and having them as a loss forever."
Women on subs
The first four enlisted women passed the intensive basic enlisted submarine course Oct. 16, Koshoffer said, bringing the integration of enlisted women on subs this year one step closer.
The women will join the Blue and Gold crews of the guided-missile submarine Michigan, where berthings are being modified to accommodate them.
The sub force is reviewing its policies around relationships between submariners, Koshoffer said, citing a few couples who met in "A" school and who are now in advanced training together.
"The sum total of the plan to integrate enlisted women into submarines, we are revising our instruction that was — no kidding — 49 pages long of excruciating detail on what you wear on the treadmill and how you manage the head. The instruction just ought to read: We will treat each other with dignity and respect because we are professionals.
"We have a fraternization policy and until we cross those lines, proceed."
The videotaping of women officers undressing on board the ballistic missile submarine Wyoming was alluded to during the junior officer panel.
Lt. Cmdr. Krysten Ellis, a supply officer who served on a submarine, told the audience that she thought the Silent Service could integrate enlisted women but that setbacks are likely.
"The sub force has always been able to adapt," Ellis said. "Obviously things happened when women were integrated. ... When enlisted women integrate, they'll have a plan, they'll execute it and some bumps will happen. They'll recover from those bumps and good things will happen. I don't have any doubts the sub force will be able to adapt."
Naval Reactors controversy
The selection of Adm. John Richardson to be the chief of naval operations has been a sore point in the retired submarine community, who were concerned that his leaving the eight-year Naval Reactors job after just three years sets a precedent that could undermine nuclear safety.
If NR becomes a landing pad for rising four stars, the thinking goes, then the Reactors boss could be thinking about follow-on military commands instead of overseeing the Nuclear Navy and its largely spotless safety record.
At the conference, one audience member asked Adm. Frank Caldwell, the new NR head, if he would serve his entire term so he "won't have to worry about his fitness reports or any of that BS."
"I think the answer to that is the Navy and the nation sees value in this eight-year tour," Caldwell replied. "There is a lot in this program that is significant, and there is value in having continuity of leadership. And I think what's been indicated to me is a commitment to preserve this as we go ahead."
Also during the answers, the Reactors boss said the force was looking at upping its capabilities against ships, by adding an anti-ship missile.
"I think its something we need to consider and move out on," he said. "We are looking at that and we are taking some steps to deliver that to the submarine force."