CORVALLIS, Ore. - A graduating Oregon State University student is going to become one of the first 19 women in the United States to break through a gender barrier that has stood for 110 years - the prohibition of women serving in the U.S. Navy Submarine Service.
After Congress lifted this ban earlier this year and the process was finalized just in the past month, Erienne Kriesch, an OSU officer candidate in Naval ROTC, was accepted as one of the pioneers in a small group of female officers who soon will be serving on the nation's ballistic and guided missile submarines.
"It's been a real whirlwind, they only made the final decision to go ahead with this a few weeks ago," Kriesch said. "It's really exciting to have this opportunity, as women continue to get integrated into more and more roles in the military."
Kriesch, 23, is a graduating senior in radiation health physics in the OSU Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics. She enlisted in the Navy five years ago, initially pursuing a program in nuclear reactor mechanics, but took advantage of an opportunity to attend college through Naval ROTC and has been in that program at OSU the past three years.
She grew up on a small farm near Chapman, Kan., just down the road a few miles from the historic Old West cow-town of Abilene. It was time spent swimming in the creek or playing softball, and making up games of "street hockey" with her three brothers - all of it a long way from any ocean or a nuclear submarine.
"My family and parents back home are pretty proud," Kriesch said.
Kriesch may be a pioneer in opening new opportunities for women in the military, but for the moment has other challenges to address. Over the next few years, she's going to learn how to work with almost every system on a highly sophisticated nuclear submarine, literally everything from operating the reactor to navigating the boat.
Kriesch says she hopes to make a career in naval service, and is on a path that in theory could lead to one of the most select titles in the world - captain of a nuclear submarine. The women allowed at first into the submarine service will all be officers, so after additional training Kriesch will begin as a division officer in command of a crew of five to 15 enlisted personnel - all men, of course. There will be sea deployments of about three months at a time.
"It may take a little getting used to, but I don't really think the issue of women working on submarines will be particularly difficult," she said. "I've already worked for, and was in charge of men in the military and there's never been a problem based on gender. These are all people who work very hard and are professionals."
Although when she first came to OSU Kriesch was wavering between nuclear and mechanical engineering, she ultimately settled with radiation health physics - an aspect of nuclear science that can lead to careers in medicine, the safe handling of nuclear materials, radiochemistry, environmental assessments and other fields. Even as an undergraduate she studied radiation treatments of eye cancer, and this year won the senior design project in nuclear engineering and radiation health physics. The program has provided "a solid background that will aid her completion of subsequent Navy schools," Kriesch said.
Many OSU nuclear engineering students either come from, or end up continuing with careers in the military, according to Kathryn Higley, professor and acting department head. A wide range of employment opportunities in private industry, the military, medical fields and the renewed interest in nuclear energy has led to a tripling of enrollment of OSU students in these areas in the past 10 years. And OSU's graduate program in Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics has been ranked as high as eighth in the nation.
Higley said that the breaking down of one more obstacle to career opportunities for women is a genuinely "momentous event." She remembers a day from early in her own career when women were very rare in any aspect of nuclear sciences, and there weren't even any bathrooms for them to use as they prepared for containment work at nuclear power plants.
"So many barriers to equality have quietly dropped away over the years, but the ones that have remained have been formidable - women defending our country," Higley said. "There are those who would argue that allowing women to sacrifice themselves for the protection of our nation is not a cause for celebration. I view it as the ultimate recognition of our worth. We are now truly equals."
For Erienne Kriesch, her work at OSU is just a start, and a new era is beginning.
"As an officer in the Navy you learn how to do almost everything on the submarine, and as you become qualified move up through the ranks. It's fast paced and it's challenging. Now it's one more career that's open to women, and I'm really looking forward to it."
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Erienne Kriesch, 320-224-4945