For Fairfax, Virginia native Kristen Lyles, breaking barriers runs in the family.
“My mom was one of the first women integrated on surface ships back in 1994,” she said.
Now, Lyles is carrying on the tradition—she’s in the first class of only 24 female naval officers selected to serve on the front lines of America’s Strategic Nuclear Force.
“I haven't felt like I've made any waves. It's felt so natural the whole process,” she said.
But, it hasn't all been smooth sailing for this elite group of women. After 18 months of rigorous training, they're now trying to qualify as a member of the nuclear submarine force—and prove they're cut out for a job that has traditionally been held by men for more than 100 years.
“No one outwardly was like you shouldn't be there sometimes you can just get a hint from someone—I’m not going to say it's just because I was on a submarine—that can happen anywhere,” Lyles said.
“When they first came onboard… in the middle of deployment, you could definitely tell…people were nervous and like oh my gosh I can't say anything wrong,” she said.
But after a few months in tight quarters hundreds of feet underwater, the women have earned the respect and admiration of their male counterparts.
In fact, some sailors say the most tension they’ve had is fighting for the bathroom.
Lyles is happy women are getting more of an opportunity to serve.
“It's long since past the feeling that women can't do what men can do. There doesn't need to be double standards and I think everyone is realizing that,” Lyles said.
It's hoped that service on combat vessels will create a pathway for even higher leadership roles for women in the navy. Twenty additional women are expected to be added to the submarine program each year.