The “New Navy” is intensely family-centered — mom-centered especially. In fact, the service that was once, as air wing maintenance chief Fred Sessions put it, the “last great bastion of male society” sometimes sounds as female homemaker-fixated as, say, McCall’s magazine…. Babies are everywhere in the “New Navy.” In fact, sometimes, as Brenda L. Fritz, a Navy optical-man, reports, “parents take their babies to work or on watches with them” because there are not enough Navy-run child-care centers. (The quote appeared in an op-ed entitled “Memo to DOD: Child Care Includes Weekends” and was answered, in the next issue, by a sailor, retired naturally, who sarcastically suggested that the Navy create a new baby-sitter job category. They could call it “Infant Maintenance Specialist Third Class.”)
Meanwhile, ship-deployed new mothers and mothers-to-be chat on Military City Online’s Internet bulletin boards about the pros and cons and logistics of “pumping” and sending breast milk home to newborns. Pregnant sailors routinely fly off ships for abortions on land; and though Navy policy requires women to return to shore duty when they reach their fifth month of pregnancy, infirmaries on some “New Navy” ships have several times been host to new life-when women concealed, or in one case had not known of, their condition.
Ever since 1995, when Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton outlined a new pregnancy policy stating that “pregnancy and parenthood are compatible with a naval career” and that pregnancy should never lead commanders to a “presumption of medical incapacity,” the alarm about pregnancies discovered while a ship is “under way” has subsided. The press no longer run articles cackling about “Love Boats” (as they did in 1991 when the supply ship Acadia, with a crew of 360, had to fly 36 pregnant crew members back to shore). Often male and some female officers will grouse about what they see as a shocking incongruity. As one male officer put it, “A pregnant sailor is a contradiction in terms.” But a kind of normalcy is setting in about a condition that once seemed unmilitary in the extreme. (There is, in fact, a wing of the Navy’s policy community that is lobbying for “overmanning” for pregnancy as a matter of course, in the same way the service routinely “overmans” for, say, the inevitable broken leg, cancer diagnosis, et cetera.)
And since current policy dictates that pregnant women serve on their ship until their fifth month (though they are often shifted into a new shipboard job to avoid heavy lifting or exposure to fetus-damaging chemicals), the “New Navy” has started designing its newest war ships with the needs of pregnant sailors in mind….
It’s not your Grandpa’s Gator — but it might be your daughter’s,” crowed an article in the Navy journal Proceedings about the new, improved class of amphibs. [It described how] the design team studied everything that might have caused women trouble on an “Old Navy” ship. They studied the height of shelves, the height of levers, foot traffic patterns in and around berthing areas (on gender-integrated ships one suddenly has to think about the fact that the only way to get from say, an important watch station is to walk through a berthing area), and also, of course, the weight of hatches, doors, and what have you. While the article repeatedly reminded us that “strength is not a gender issue” (lest we begin to think that women are weaker than men), it went on to explain that, as part of the ship’s gender-neutral design, “watertight door and multi-dog elevator door designs are being critiqued for easier, less strenuous methods of closing.” The LPD-17 designers took their task of designing a woman-friendly ship so seriously, they even organized a Mixed Gender Issues Workshop (made up of the branches of the Navy who are charged with monitoring military women’s issues) to supply “vision and guidance.”
The workshop (which was kind of about women’s issues-but-not-really-because-everybody-knows-gender-differences-aren’t-that-important) generated suggestions like putting more mirrors and showers in the berthing areas, exercising “privacy considerations” around “all the bunks in the medical wards”-which translates to “Put up some curtains between those beds in the med!”-and addressing concerns about “the delicate nature of women’s undergarments…in today’s industrial-strength shipboard laundry facilities.”
Thinking specifically about pregnant sailors, the LPD-17 team tried to identify which shipboard chemicals could hurt fetuses and looked at ways to “try to reduce heat and noise, improving the health of the entire crew while supporting standards developed to protect pregnant sailors.” “Fetuses will not be the only ones to benefit from overall enhanced hazard management,” the article cheerfully concluded.
Just announced in late 1999: The LPD-17 amphibs will be the first class of ships to get innovations like the ability to produce more freshwater (allowing longer showers), more bathroom facilities, and the new “sit-up rack,” a sleeping bunk with two more feet of head space than the Navy’s standard “coffin rack.”
Well, it’s not going to kill anybody to lose just a bit of that “Old Navy” shipboard heat and noise-and the elastic at the waist of men’s “undergarments” could probably use some relief from those “industrial-strength” washers too. No, the biggest problem with this bustling infrastructure and culture overhaul, as far as many male sailors are concerned, is that most of the energy of the Navy’s redecorating effort has been focused on the “Old Navy” fixture called the “Old Navy” male. The old salt who inspired the description “as drunk as a sailor on leave” will be as out of place in the sunlit, chintz-trimmed house the Navy is building as the proverbial bull in a china shop. Of course, there will always be a place for men in the Navy-at present, women make up only 12 percent of the service, so obviously we’re still going to need a lot of men-but coming generations must be ready to fit into what Tailhook historian Jean Zimmerman called “a gender-neutral workplace” in its first stage of “hopeful beginnings.”