Biden notes big year, sub service for Navy women

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Vice President Joe Biden on Friday highlighted a milestone year for women at the U.S. Naval Academy, taking special note during the academy's commissioning ceremony of 11 graduates who will be the first women to serve on submarines.

Biden, whose recognition of the women brought huge cheers from the crowd of students and parents, said they will inspire others to serve the nation in ways they never thought they could.

"Nothing, nothing, is beyond my daughter and granddaughter's capacity, and you're demonstrating that," Biden said.

The Navy in April lifted a ban on women serving on submarines, where concerns about cramped quarters and long tours at sea kept them off-limits even after female sailors began work on surface ships in 1994.

Jessica Wilcox, one of the future submariners, said she will be going to the U.S. Navy's Nuclear Power School in Charleston, S.C., in October to begin her submarine training.

"It's exciting and it's a step forward, I think, for everybody, and the fact that I get to be a part of it is incredible and I'm just hoping that we all excel and do great things for all the things that are expected of us," Wilcox, of Honesdale, Pa., said.

The breaking of the barrier was especially satisfying to Sharon Disher, who was one of 55 women who first graduated from the academy in 1980. She attended the commissioning ceremony to watch her daughter, Alison, and her son, Brett, graduate in the class of 2010.

"We went through a lot 30 years ago, but everything we went through, it's all been worth it now," she said.

Disher, who wrote a book about her experience titled "First Class: Women Join the Ranks at the Naval Academy," recalled how male classmates used to question why she was attending, because she couldn't work on a submarine, fly combat aircraft or be on a combat ship.

"We were constantly fighting that argument, where today the women can pretty much do everything now except for SEALs, so it's so much better in that respect and men are so much more accepting of the women," Disher, of Annapolis, Md., said.

Her daughter Alison said the breakthrough was important to her as well, and she noted with appreciation her trailblazing mother.

"It's always great for her to see how far the pioneering has come," she said. "I mean, she really set the bar high and pretty much paved the way for girls to do what they can today."

A total of about 20 women will begin training this year to become submarine officers in a program that takes at least 15 months. They will report for duty aboard a submarine by 2012.

The first group of women will consist entirely of officers. They will be assigned to guided-missile attack submarines and ballistic-missile submarines, which have the most living space in the Navy's fleet.

Three women will be assigned to each submarine's rotating crews. That will allow all three women aboard a sub to share a single stateroom for sleeping. A single bathroom shared by the vessel's 15 officers will have a sign to show if a man or woman is inside.

This year at the Naval Academy there were 1,028 graduates, 809 men and 219 women. There were 755 students commissioned as Navy ensigns and 257 commissioned as 2nd Lieutenants in the Marine Corps.

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