The tip of the spear

Cmdr. Darlene Iskra retired from the Navy in 2000, after 21 years of service. As one of the first female officers to serve at sea, Iskra’s career was marked by a number of firsts, but that was never her motivating factor.
In 1979 Iskra was working at a swimming pool after graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in recreation management. She joined the Navy because it was one of the few jobs that offered benefits as well as equal pay for women.
“There weren’t a whole lot of jobs like that around for women,” Iskra said.
Someone she worked with at the pool said she should try to be a Navy diver because she was such a good swimmer. Iskra admitted she had always wanted to learn to dive, but didn’t even know at the time that there were Navy divers.
Iskra went to officer candidate school, where she volunteered for the diving program, and was accepted. The law had only changed in 1978 allowing women to serve on some non-combat ships.
“At the time I had no idea, at all, that women officers had not ever done this before,” Iskra said. “I was within the first small group of women officers who had gone to this dive school.”
Iskra’s class at the diving school was one of the first to be integrated, with both men and women in the same program. There was one other woman with Iskra in her class.
In Officer Candidate School they received the same training as the men, she said, but there was one difference: The women were required to wear skirts for their class alpha uniforms.
“When you’re marching around in the middle of winter, it got a little chilly,” Iskra said. “If you want uniformity then you should make the women wear slacks too.”
When Iskra graduated and went to her duty station aboard the USS Hector, uniforms continued to be a problem. Since the Navy had only recently begun allowing women to serve on ships there were no female at-sea uniforms — women had to buy men’s uniforms, which fit awkwardly, as they weren’t designed for women’s bodies. Women had been serving in the Navy since 1948, but never before on ships.
The USS Hector was a repair ship based in San Francisco Bay. Iskra served as the diving officer aboard the vessel.
After spending two years aboard the Hector, however, Iskra’s advancement was impeded by a problem the Navy had not yet addressed. While it had opened up non-combat ships to women, the Navy had only a handful of ships designated as such.
“There were all of these senior officers who had no place to go,” Iskra said. “There was just no upward mobility.”
Iskra wanted to be at sea, but she had to transfer back on-shore, where she taught nuclear safety and security at the nuclear weapons training group.
“It was interesting, but it certainly wasn’t what I had joined the Navy to do,” she said.
She was able to return to sea in the mid 1980s when the Navy built a new class of salvage and repair vessels. Iskra joined the crew of the USS Grasp as the operations officer.
While on the Grasp, Iskra was selected for executive officer and made lieutenant commander. Shortly thereafter, she was selected for the position she would unwittingly be remembered for. Iskra was named commander of the USS Opportune, a 200 ft. rescue and salvage ship
“Everything I had done in the past was geared towards becoming a commanding officer,” Iskra said. “When I got selected for command, to me, it was just a normal progression.”
She was the first woman in the history of the U.S. Navy to command a ship, an achievement that places her among the most important naval firsts for women.
But, Iskra said, it was never her intention to break such ground. She was only going through the progression of her own career.
“My goal was to be in command, but it wasn’t to be the first woman in command,” she said.
Iskra commanded the Opportune from 1990 to 1993. Three weeks after she took command, Operation Desert Storm began, and the Opportune deployed to the Middle East.
The deployment was a nerve-wracking time, Iskra said. The Opportune usually operated independently, not as part of a battle-group.
“We were out there all by ourselves,” Iskra said.
They had only two 50 calibre machine guns and two anti-aircraft guns aboard the ship.
Even then, Iskra said, “We didn’t have any air search radar, so the only time we could shoot at anything was if they were directly above us.”
Since the Opportune was a non-combat ship outside a battle-group, it didn’t have the classified publications that told the weapons capability of the enemy; however, there were reports during Desert Storm that the enemy possessed chemical weapons.
Unfortunately for Iskra and her crew, the ship wasn’t even equipped with enough gas masks for everyone.
Despite their lack of defense, the Opportune made it through Desert Storm and back home unharmed. In 1993, two years after returning from the Middle East, Iskra moved off the Opportune and the ship was decommissioned.
Iskra stayed in the Navy for seven more years, but her heart was no longer in it. When she received her fitness report from her superior, she was ranked lowest among her four other peers, despite passing all inspections and being the only one of the five to deploy to a war zone.
Iskra said when she asked her superior about the confusing report, he said, “Well, you had opportunities that the men haven’t had and therefore I don’t think it’s going to hurt you.”
After that, Iskra said, things sort of went down hill.
“It became almost unbearable,” she said. “The crew and my peers were very supportive,” but her superiors seemed to be leaving her out on her own. There was a lack of support, she felt.
After leaving the Navy, Iskra went back to school. She got her master’s degree in Sociology from University of Maryland.
She worked as an aid to Washington State Sen. Maria Cantwell, where she was an integral part in bringing about a bill that put an end to the practice of forcing U.S. military women in Saudi Arabia to wear traditional abaya and walk behind men.
She received her Ph.D. from University of Maryland, College Park in 2007. Her dissertation was titled, “Breaking through the brass ceiling: Elite military women’s strategies for success.”
Iksra said the biggest stumbling block for women in the Navy is not the system itself, but the individual leaders within the system.
“The leaders don’t believe fully in integration,” she said. “They need to take this seriously, and treat everyone with respect. They talk the talk, but they need to walk the walk.”
Of course, Iskra said, this isn’t a problem with all the Navy’s leadership — officers like Adm. Ronald Zlatoper and Adm. Michael Mullen have helped push the issue forward.
Right now, women are going through the same issues with submarines that Iskra went through with ships. Iskra said she wishes things would move forward more quickly, but agrees with Zlatoper when he said, “It’s an evolution, not a revolution.”
Iskra spoke highly of leaders like Zlatoper and Mullen for their foresightedness. She spoke repeatedly about how she didn’t guide her career to be the first at anything, but just like Zlatoper and Mullen she led the way for the changes that needed to take place.
Though she may not have been thinking of herself when she spoke about them, her own words give testament to her contribution: “It takes leadership like that to push these sorts of things. It doesn’t happen without a person leading the way.”