Honoring 30 Years of Women in Command at Sea

Dec. 21, 2020 | By Denise Krepp, Director's Action Group, Naval History and Heritage Command

Last month, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday and his wife Linda installed a new display in their residence highlighting the accomplishments of female Navy pioneers. Among them is a photo of Cmdr. Darlene Iskra, U.S. Navy, retired who, on Dec. 27, 1990 became the first woman to command a commissioned Navy ship. I recently spoke with Iskra about her military career.

Iskra grew up in California. Her father served in the Army before she was born and her step-father was a merchant mariner.  

While in high school, Iskra considered joining the Navy but her father advised her to wait until she graduated from college. Iskra attended community college for two years and then transferred to San Francisco State.  She then worked in the civilian world for five years.

Iskra was living in Washington state when she saw an article in a Seattle newspaper advertising jobs in the Navy.  The year was 1978 and female Navy officers were a rarity. 

LCDR Darlene M. Iskra smiles for the camera shortly after her appointment as commanding officer of the salvage ship USS OPPORTUNE (ARS-41). Iskra's appointment represents the first time that a woman has been assigned to command a U.S. Navy ship.

Iskra reported to Officer Candidate School (OCS) in March 1979. Her class was the second class to include both men and women. There were six women in her company and they looked after one another.

After graduating from OCS, Iskra was assigned to dive school which was then located at the Washington Navy Yard.  Iskra swam competitively in high school. Her preferred strokes were fly, back, and breast so swimming wasn't a challenge for her. Iskra used the breathing techniques she learned from competitive swimming to enhance her running skills.

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Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 210624-N-ZV259-6445

When she graduated from dive school in the spring of 1980, Iskra became one of the first three female Navy Diving Officers. I asked her if she knew that she was going to be a pioneer in the military diving community. Iskra chuckled. The Navy recruiter hadn't shared that fact with her. 

After dive school, Iskra went to surface warfare officer school and her classmates included the first female graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy.  The USNA Class of 1980 is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year and photos of the female graduates can be seen in the CNO's Tingey House display.

Iskra's first ship was the USS Hector (AR 7), a World War II era repair ship. Homeported in San Francisco, Iskra and her diving crew deployed to Japan, the Philippines, Kenya, and Australia. Her next duty station was a shore billet in San Diego.  

A starboard bow view of the salvage ship USS OPPORTUNE (ARS 41).

In the mid-1980s, the Navy began building gender neutral ships. Iskra, read about them in Faceplate magazine and immediately started advocating to terminate her shore duty.  She wanted go back to sea to get her career path aligned to those of her male counterparts.  

Her shore command agreed to let her terminate and her detailer assigned Iskra to the Pre-commissioning crew of the USS Grasp (ARS 51) as acting executive officer and operations officer.  She arrived in September 1984, and the ship was commissioned in December 1985.  Shortly thereafter, Iskra served as executive officer on the USS Preserver (ARS 8) and the USS Hoist (ARS 40).  

On December 27, 1990, four bells announced Iskra's arrival aboard the USS Opportune (ARS 41).  She walked to her stateroom and was immediately greeted by an overwhelming stack of letters, congratulating her on becoming the first female CO.

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Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 210624-N-ZV259-6493

Iskra was also the first woman on the USS Opportune and the male sailors were concerned about her seeing them leave the head naked. Iskra's response? Put some clothes on.

Iskra liked going to sea but doing so meant she wasn't home with her then husband.  They were both active duty Navy officers and co-location wasn't guaranteed.  The grueling lifestyle also precluded her from having children.

After retiring in 2000, Iskra earned a doctorate degree and taught for the University Maryland.  She also published two books, "Women in the United States Armed Forces: A Guide to the Issues" and "Breaking through the Brass Ceiling: Strategies of Success for Elite Military Women."

Iskra is an ambassador for the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, a memorial established by the federal government that honors to the service of all women who are and have served in the US Armed Forces. 

She also volunteers at the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Washington. The museum has 39,000 artifacts related to undersea weapons, submarine technology, and diving. Iskra shares her adventures with wide-eyed school children, some of whom might one day follow in her footsteps. 

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Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 210624-N-ZV259-6503

Iskra joined the Navy to see the world, never expecting to be a pioneer. She wanted the same career path as her male counterparts and with a bright cheery smile and steely determination, Iskra successfully achieved that goal.

Thank you CDR Iskra for your service to our country.