“It’s 2022 and women are still doing the ‘first’ of things?” is how Lt. Cmdr. Amber Cowan started her conversation in the Public Affairs office at Submarine Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet.
The submarine officer stopped by for an interview between classes while completing the Submarine Command Course in Pearl Harbor. The Colorado Springs, Colorado, native has two grandfathers who served in the U.S. Air Force, and she attended the University of Washington on a scholarship from the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps, her head full of dreams of becoming an aviator. Her eyesight kept her grounded, but then the opportunity to be among the first women to serve aboard submarines opened up. It was everything she was looking for, and she’s never looked back.
On Nov. 12, Cowan became the executive officer (XO) of the Gold Crew of the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Kentucky (SSBN 737), making her the first woman to serve as XO of a U.S. Navy submarine.
Cowan was in the first cohort of women to serve aboard submarines. After graduating from the University of Washington in 2010, she received her first set of orders to attend Nuclear Power School in Goose Creek, South Carolina, the first of many schools required for submarine officers. The Nuclear Power School curriculum covered topics like math, physics, chemistry and nuclear reactor technology, and after completing Power School she attended Naval Prototype Training Unit and Submarine Officer Basic course. Then Cowan, along with the rest of her classmates, reported to submarines across the Navy as division officers.
Cowan’s first boat was the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Maine (SSBN 741) (Blue). Over the course of three years, which included three-and-a-half strategic deterrence patrols, she served as the Main Propulsion Assistant, Damage Control Assistant and Tactical Systems Officer.
“I started in the engine room, which is where we build our foundation,” said Cowan. “It teaches officers to trust their enlisted counterparts and also have ownership of and in a watch team.”
One of Cowan’s favorite memories from her division officer tour is from a duty day, when she found herself making rounds at night as the Engineering Duty Officer and Ship’s Duty Officer. Her ship was in dry dock at the time, and as she walked around and under the nearly 600-foot submarine she thought to herself, “I can’t believe it is my job to be in charge of this.”
Following her time with Maine (Blue), she served as the Assistant Nuclear Programs Coordinator at Naval Service Training Command in Pensacola, Fla., and then attended the Submarine Officer’s Advanced Course in Groton, Conn. in preparation to serve as a department head.
By May of 2017 Cowan was serving as the Engineering Officer aboard the Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS Texas (SSN 775). On Texas, she enjoyed seeing the difference in attack submarine missions compared to her previous experience aboard a ballistic missile submarine. Cowan observed that regardless of the platform, working as a team with the other sailors on board was essential to mission success.
“A lot of submarining is communicating with others and understanding the people-to-people dynamic in a stressful environment,” Cowan explained.
After Texas, Cowan served at Commander, U.S. Submarine Forces Pacific Fleet as the Force Radiological Controls Officer. When she was selected to serve as an XO, she began the Submarine Command Course at the Naval Submarine Training Center, Pacific.
While the mantle of being the first at something may weigh heavy at times, Cowan takes it all in stride and remembers the inspiring words of one of her grandfathers, who told her, “If anybody’s going to do it, you gotta show ‘em how to do it right.”
Her passion for what she does is visible when she speaks. She talks about submarining as a verb, and fondly remembers the many ‘we really just did that’ moments she’s shared with her shipmates underway. While some may relish shore duty, she’s genuinely excited to be going back to a boat.
“I have missed being a part of a crew, and solving problems together as a team,” said Cowan.
Cowan had this to say to anyone considering the silent service:
“I, we, need smart talented people like you. If you are good with team success, the submarine force is for you as well. It’s going to challenge you in ways you won’t find anywhere else on the planet.”
As of November 2022, female sailors are assigned to 28 operational submarine crews. Based on overall retention rates and high accession source interest, the Submarine Force plans to integrate 33 submarine crews by 2030.