Adversity is something many women in the military have dealt with over the years. It’s also something that deep sea fishing boat captains face.
Why the odd analogy, you ask? Well, because those two worlds are colliding tonight on an episode of the Discovery Channel show “The Bait.” It’s a preshow to the popular series “Deadliest Catch,” which follows several fishing vessels in the Bering Sea.
In a segment called “Captain to Captain,” retired Navy Cmdr. Darlene Iskra, the first female commanding officer of a U.S. Navy ship, sat down for a chat with some of the captains of the boats featured in the popular show.
Ahead of that episode, Iskra talked with me about some of the adversity she faced in her career as a commander, a diver and a surface warfare officer.
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,” Iskra said.
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,” she continued. “That was the hard part.”
Early in her career, women could only go on certain types of ships, which was a problem for women like her who had careers that required ship time. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the Navy began building a new class of dive and salvage ships that were gender-neutral.
During her time on the Opportune, Iskra’s crew patrolled the Suez Canal during Operation Desert Storm, making sure it remained open for commerce. She made it clear that it was an opportunity that wasn’t just handed to her.
“I worked just as hard as everybody else did — in fact, harder — to get to that position,” she said.
Iskra attributed getting through the tough times in her career to two simple things: Friends and physical training (as she put it, she was in “fantastic shape” then).
Her advice to other military women striving for success? Don’t take things personally when they go wrong, and don’t let anyone take advantage of you.
“You need to hold them accountable. Challenge them,” she said. “You have to let them know you’re not going to accept that kind of treatment.”
Iskra retired as commander in 2000 after 21 years of service. She earned her doctorate in sociology in 2007 and spent several years teaching leadership education and development at the University of Maryland. She now lives in Washington State and is semi-retired, teaching online courses part-time for the Columbia College of Missouri and doing volunteer work.
Oh yeah — and making cameos on “The Bait.”
“The thing I was a little surprised about was how casual it was. I really didn’t know what to expect,” she said, admitting that she’d never watched the show. “But the guys were very nice, very respectful.”
So, is she nervous for her episode to air?
“It’s too late to be nervous!” she joked. “I just looked at it as a new experience — something fun. I had a blast.”
Iskra’s episode of “The Bait” aired at 8 p.m. Tuesday on The Discovery Channel.
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