Equalize

Women divers in the United States Navy

by Terrina Weatherspoon, Defense Media Activity Artwork, graphics and motion media by Willie Kendrick, Defense Media Activity
01 March 2016
 


Babette "Bette" Bolivar
Rear Admiral


Captain Bette Bolivar Bush earned her initial diving qualification in 1989. From 1988-2000 she was the Commanding Officer of USS Salvor (ARS-52) and served as the director of ammunition offload from USS Cole (DDG-67) after the 2000 terrorist attack in Yemen. Captain Bush served as the first female Commanding Officer of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit One from 2003-2005. In 2006 she deployed to Afghanistan for 12 months in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. She was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2005.

"When I was 8 years old, I was a near-drowning victim and had to be resuscitated. From then on, I told myself I would conquer both the seas and my fear of the seas by learning more and becoming part of the underwater environment. I took swimming lessons and gradually eased my way back into the water...and eventually earned a degree in oceanography.

In August of 2014, Bolivar was promoted to Commander of the Joint Region Marianas, the Commander of the US Naval Forces Marianas, and the U.S. Defense Representative for Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and Republic of Palau. Her father started as a steward in the Navy and retired as a Chief Petty Officer. Both her brothers also served in the Navy.

Click on the image below to download the poster.
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VIRIN: 160225-N-BK435-009

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Marie E. Knafelc,
Captain Medical Corps, U.S. Navy (retired)


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VIRIN: 160225-N-BK435-007

Captain Marie Knafelc earned her doctorate in medicine in 1980 and joined the Navy afterwards as an Undersea Medical Officer with the Navy Experimental Diving Unit. She qualified in SCUBA, mixed gas, and saturation diving. In 1984, she became the first female Medical Officer qualified in submarines, and in 1987, the first female saturation diving Medical Officer. From 1992 to 2002, Captain Knafelc served as the Senior Medical Officer/Medical Director for the Navy Experimental Diving Unit. She was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2000.


 
Every summer, come Memorial Day, no matter how cold and bleak it was in western Pennsylvania, my mother would take us children to the swimming pool. Then came the TV show Sea Hunt and the seeds were sown." -Marie E. Knafelc
Knafelc always wanted to join the Navy.


 
Probably because it's the only place you can swim." -Marie E. Knafelc


Knafelc ended up swimming in the Navy; she was just 300 feet in the depths when she did it.

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Karen Kohanowich
Commander, U.S. Navy (retired)

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VIRIN: 160225-N-BK435-005

Commander Karen Kohanowich completed Navy Salvage and Mixed Gas Diving School in 1983. She served as Diving and Operations Officer of USS Safeguard (ARS 50), 1986-1988, and qualified as a pilot for submersible Pisces IV in 1993. From 2002 to 2005, Commander Kohanowich was the Ocean Resources Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy; in 2005, she began working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the Deputy Director of their Undersea Research Program. She joined the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2001.


 
What really got me into diving was that the standards for women were the same [as for men]. Women had to do the same number of sit-ups and push-ups. They had to climb up and down the dive ladders wearing the same 200-pound Mark V dive system. ... Having separate standards is almost like sabotage. There's no way you can have a good team. You know, what we're here for is to do the work and be part of the team." -Karen Kohanowich

Kohanowich attended salvage and He02 dive school and embarked on a Navy diving career that included six years of sea time, researching and testing diving technology and participating in numerous diving and salvage operations. Later in her career, Kohanowich also participated in NASA's Extreme Environment mission Operations (NEEMO) X mission at NOAA's Aquarius Undersea Saturation laboratory off Key Largo, Florida.

Click on the image below to download the poster.

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VIRIN: 160225-N-BK435-009

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Linda Hubbell
Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Naval Reserve (retired)

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Lieutenant Command Linda Hubbell graduated from Navy Second Class Diving School in 1976 as the first female officer to qualify as a SCUBA diver. She worked for the Navy as a marine mammal researcher from 1976-1978. In 1979, she became the first women to train in an atmospheric diving suit and was also the first female officer to dive the Mark 12 Surface-Supported Diving System. Lieutenant Commander Hubbell joined the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2005.


 
It was like being a visitor in another world. I loved working in the water. "I love the oceans, the marine life, the entire experience...still to this day." -Linda Hubbell

When Hubbell's detailer was offering her a job in Hawaii as an assistant biology technical officer, there was one catch - she had to go to Navy diving school.


 
Then he informed me there was one other bit of news that went with this diving school stuff. I would be the first female officer to ever go through. My Dad was a Navy Seabee qualified in underwater demolition, and I knew what Navy diving school meant. Gulp." -Linda Hubbell


Hubbell added, "Being a female Navy diver has to do with perseverance. You get tired of being told you can't go on some job because you might get hurt."

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Darlene Iskra
Commander, U.S. Navy (retired)

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VIRIN: 160225-N-BK435-004

Commander Darlene Iskra graduated from the Naval School of Diving and Salvage in 1980 as one of the first female diving officers. She served as Diving Officer aboard USS Hector (ARS 7), 1980-1982, and as Executive Officer of USS Hoist (ARS-40), 1989-1990. In 1990, Commander Iskra took control of USS Opportune (ARS-41) as the first woman to command a commissioned Navy vessel. She served as Opportune's Commanding Officer through 1993. In 2008, Commander Iskra was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame.


 
I knew I was the first (woman) and I felt a responsibility to show that equal opportunity works in the Navy. Once they opened the ships, I realized that someday I could become commander of one."
-Darlene Iskra.
Iskra was a lieutenant commander in 1990 when she was handed the reins of the salvage ship USS Opportune, making her the first woman to become commander of any U.S. Navy ship. About a decade before that, she was also one of the first female line officers to graduate from the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center.

But the path to success wasn't easy, she said. Establishing credibility was hard because, until the 1980s, very few jobs were available for women in the Navy.


 
All the men had ever seen women do in the past was either be nurses or administrative personnel. Now, suddenly, you had women who were going to sea, going into diving, women who were flying airplanes. Those women had to work hard to build trust and prove themselves. Unfortunately, for a woman, it just seemed like every time you moved to a new command, you had to do it again and again and again. That was the hard part."
-Darlene Iskra
Navy's 1st female commander talks on "The Bait"

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Debra Bodenstedt
Captain U.S. Navy

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Captain Debra Bodenstedt qualified as a SCUBA, surface-supplied, and mixed gas diver in 1983. In 1984, she became the first woman to qualify as a submarine rescue chamber operator, and was the first woman to command the Consolidated Divers Unit in San Diego from 1998-2000. Captain Bodenstedt worked on the Challenger recovery in 1986 and dove on the USS Monitor salvage expedition in 2001. She was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2002.


 
When I first came into the program there weren't many sea billets available to women and this was one way to get to go to sea. Women are part of the community within the Navy divers, and they are equally trained, equally capable, and equally successful as their male counterparts...you get out of it what you put into it."
-Debra Bodenstedt
One of the other jobs that Bodenstedt was most proud of was accomplished while she was the CO of an underwater ships husbandry unit.


 
We removed 30-ton propellers from a carrier in the water...That is quite a task, an engineering feat, that's done underwater."
-Debra Bodenstedt
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Mary Bonnin
Electrician's Mate, Master Chief Petty Officer, U.S. Navy (retired)

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Master Chief Mary Bonnin earned her initial diving qualification in 1977. When she graduated from First Class Diving School in 1981 at the top of her class, she received the Honor Person designation and became the first woman to qualify as a Diver First Class.

During the seven years she spent as a Navy diving instructor, Bonnin trained more than 1,000 divers. In 1990, she earned the title of Master Diver and remains the only woman to do so. She was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2001.

"I've never really felt that I did anything special and never really understood why some made such a big deal of the fact that I made Master Diver. I have always been frustrated that the female enlisted diving community has grown so slowly when I know there are so many talented enlisted women in the Navy. Hopefully with the new opportunities women have available, we will see more grown in the diving community."

A Chief Warrant Officer once told Mary,


 
You couldn't do it. Babe, what do you want to be a diver for? You'll be thrown out of that school in a week."
-Mary Bonnin
His challenge made her determined to succeed.


 
It's a matter of determination rather than skills. It helps to have someone behind you telling you that you can't do it. To work in a man's world you have to have an awful, awful lot of patience."
-Mary Bonnin
When asked if she faced gender discrimination Bonner replied, "I only got crap if they hadn't gotten to know me yet. The difference between being a male diver and a female goes something like this: Male diver..."let's see what he can do" Female diver..."let's see if she can do."
Click on the image below to download the poster.
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VIRIN: 160225-N-BK435-009
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Donna M. Tobias
Hull Technician Second Class

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Donna Tobias became the first woman to graduate from the Navy's Deep Sea Diving School in 1975. She had to handle 200 pounds of gear, including a Mark V dive helmet, weighted boots, and a heavy canvas suit. She dove in water that was often dark, cold, and turbulent, accompanied by men, some of whom were supportive and many more who resented her invasion of their domain.


 
If you ever uttered the words, 'I quit,' you could never take them back, and there were plenty of eyes waiting to see me fail. I didn't want them asking less of women, for anything."
-Donna M. Tobias
Donna Tobias' recent induction into the Women Divers Hall of Fame released a torrent of memories of her experiences in the Navy -- few of which were more vivid than her time in the Mark V.

The Mark V, no longer used by the Navy, was a diving suit made of rubberized canvas, with a spun copper helmet and breastplate, and one-size-fits-all lead boots. On land, it weighed 200 pounds to Tobias' 135, but in the water it allowed her to withstand the pressure at depths of more than 100 feet.


 
On a daily basis, it was the single biggest obstacle. That suit was huge on me. I'm 5-foot-5 on a tall day, and my feet are small. Those boots were tough. They weighed 17 pounds each, and my foot only filled half the shoe. I even had dreams about those shoes."
-Donna M. Tobias
It was an arduous climb up a ladder out of the water, trying to place her lead-weight boots on each rung.

"My foot would just hang down, trying to lift those boots. You had to get your momentum going. Once you started, you could not stop."

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