How To Become a Submariner
It's after midnight, so we're now on Day 4 of waiting for Lt. Raymond Perry, USN (Ret.) to respond to my E-mail accusing him of blatant disregard for the truth when "reporting" on the San Francisco grounding. We know that he does respond to E-mailers (here's his response to Henry, from the comments: "You, sir, did not read my article very closely. Of course, I believe you stopped thinking when you saw LT."), but maybe just not to sub-bloggers. While trying to come up with something to post to kill time, a comment by Ninme asking about what kind of special psychological testing and whatnot submariners went through got me thinking about my experiences. First, though, the background...
Here's what the official navy.com submarine site says about becoming a submariner:
"The challenging missions and rigorous living conditions of submarines require a specially trained crew. Submarines have many specialized systems that don’t appear on other ships, such as environmental systems, dive systems and special propulsion systems. Since the entire American sub fleet is nuclear powered, there is also a constant need for nuclear engineers.
"Applicants interested in these specialized fields can find a home in the submarine community. Sailors in other fields can become submariners too if they have the mental toughness and control to live in a submarine environment and meet the qualifications required of submariners.
"Qualifications for Submariners:
-Must be male and meet all general Navy requirements
-Must volunteer and pass psychological screening
-Some submariners in highly specialized fields such as nuclear engineering must enlist for longer periods than the standard four–year agreement
-Must pass all submarine training
-Must complete submarine qualifications within a specific timeframe while onboard ship "
Fair enough. Suppose you want to be an officer? Navy.com has answers to those questions too.
I was "lucky" enough to go through the training pipeline on both the enlisted and officer sides (having the enlisted experience made the officer training a lot easier). The item in the list above that might jump out at you (because I bolded it) is "pass psychological screening". Wow, that sounds imposing. I'm sure the Navy has determined a foolproof method over the years to weed out any nutjobs.
Well, at least I hope so. I suppose that just getting through the approximately 2 year training pipeline without hitting someone or showing up for work drunk is a fairly good predictor. However, they also add an additional element for everyone but enlisted nukes -- the psychological test. As I remember, they sat our whole class down to take a 240 question true or false test with questions like "I often want to hit people I don't agree with (T/F)", "I don't like being in enclosed spaces (T/F)", and "I wouldn't carry out an order to launch nuclear weapons (T/F)". I'm no psychologist, but the whole exercise seemed a little pointless to me. They should have asked the really important questions: "I do what the voices in my head tell me to do (T/F)", "I think I'd kill my Department Head if he ever yelled at me (T/F)", and "I would probably launch nuclear weapons even without orders (T/F)". Afterwards, either that day or a couple of days later, I, along with the rest of my class, got called in to talk with some type of medical officer (I never did learn to tell all those damned similar collar devices apart) who asked me a couple of questions and said "OK, you're good to go". I wasn't too impressed. Then, I figured that maybe the whole training pipeline was the test, and the instructors had specialized training in learning to identify potential problem cases. This belief lasted until I became a pipeline instructor (Shift Engineer at MTS 626 Crew B '93-'95 for the nuclearly inclined reader), and found that all they taught us was which number to call if a student broke down during the backshifts (which happened far too frequently for my tastes; I really didn't like talking to some sobbing Ensign at 0300 on Day 6 of midshift).
So -- was the screening successful? On my boats, we only had one guy lose it psychologically (he claimed he was claustrophobic -- I had figured most claustophobes wouldn't volunteer for submarine duty). Here's a 25 slide report I found discussing psychological statistics for submariners, and recommending more thorough screening. Here's a couple of examples of what's in the report:
"There are certain unique aspects to the working environment in a submarine..
– No personal space whatsoever
– No escape from workplace conflicts
– No sunlight for long periods
– Disrupted sleep/wake cycles and sleep deprivation
– Concern for danger of excessive sea pressure
– Concern for danger from enemy targets
• Socially intense, physically-closed, and potentially dangerous working environment
• Conclusion: The submarine environment demands psychological resilience to workplace stressors"
"Ongoing Submarine Fleet Attrition Problems
• COMSUBPAC, 2001
– 37% of all waivers & disquals were psychological
– 14% of all MEDEVACS were psychologically-based
• COMSUBLANT, 2002, 10-month period
– 12% of all MEDEVACS were psychologically-based
– 3 of these events interrupted operations"
And finally, because it's getting late, here's the classic profile of submariners by Dr. Joyce Brothers written after the USS Thresher (SSN-593) sinking:
The tragic loss of the submarine Thresher and 129 men had a special kind of an impact on the nation.....a special kind of sadness, mixed with universal admiration for the men who choose this type of work. One could not mention the Thresher without observing, in the same breath how utterly final and alone the end is when a ship dies at the bottom of the sea....and what a remarkable specimen of man it must be who accepts such a risk. Most of us might be moved to conclude, too, that a tragedy of this kind would have a damaging effect on the morale of the other men in the submarine service and tend to discourage future enlistment. Actually, there is no evidence that this is so. What is it then, that lures men to careers in which they spend so much of their time in cramped quarters, under great psychological stress, with danger lurking all about them? Togetherness is an overworked term, but in no other branch of our military service is it given such full meaning as in the "silent service". In an undersea craft, each man is totally dependent upon the skill of every other man in the crew, not only for top performance but for actual survival. Each knows that his very life depends on the others and because this is so, there is a bond among them that both challenges and comforts them. All of this gives the submariner a special feeling of pride, because he is indeed a member of an elite corps. The risks, then, are an inspiration rather than a deterrent. The challenge of masculinity is another factor which attracts men to serve on submarines. It certainly is a test of a man's prowess and power to know he can qualify for this highly selective service. However, it should be emphasized that this desire to prove masculinity is not pathological, as it might be in certain dare-devil pursuits, such as driving a motorcycle through a flaming hoop. There is nothing daredevilish about motivations of the man who decides to dedicate his life to the submarine service. He does, indeed, take pride in demonstrating that he is quite a man, but he does not do so to practice a form of foolhardy brinkmanship, to see how close he can get to failure and still snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. On the contrary, the aim in the submarine service is to battle danger, to minimize the risk, to take every measure to make certain that safety, rather than danger, is maintained at all times. Are the men in the submarine service braver than those in other pursuits where the possibilty of a sudden tragedy is constant? The glib answer would be to say they are. It is more accurate, from a psychological point of view, to say they are not necessarily braver, but that they are men who have a little more insight into themselves and their capabilities. They know themselves a little better than the next man. This has to be so with men who have a healthy reason to volunteer for a risk. They are generally a cut healthier emotionally than others of the similar age and background because of their willingness to push themselves a little bit farther and not settle for an easier kind of existence. We all have tremendous capabilities but are rarely straining at the upper level of what we can do, these men are. This country can be proud and grateful that so many of its sound, young, eager men care enough about their own stature in life and the welfare of their country to pool their skills and match them collectively against the power of the sea. (This is a report made by Dr. Joyce Brothers after the loss of the USS Thresher in 1963.)