USS Virginia, one of the first fast-attack submarines to be integrated, returns home

Groton — When the USS Virginia returned to port Thursday, most on board were returning from their first deployment, including several female officers, who are among the first women to serve on submarines.

"I'm not a female member of the crew. I'm just another crew member," Lt. j.g. Heather Kerber said of being one of five female officers assigned to the Virginia. "We're not men. We're not women. We're Virginians."

The Virginia was one of the first fast-attack submarines to which female officers were assigned, and the boat has deployed twice now with women on board. The five female officers assigned to Virginia range in rank from ensign to lieutenant, and for three of them, this deployment was their first.

During its six-month deployment, the Virginia steamed about 27,500 nautical miles, making port visits in Faslane, Scotland; Rota, Spain; and Haakonsvern, Norway.

It was a "very successful" first deployment for Kerber, who is the supply corps officer aboard the boat. She's in charge of logistics, feeding the crew and making sure there are enough spare parts on board.

Kerber, 30, who is originally from Chino, Calif., was working in construction before joining the Navy, the first Kerber to serve in the military, her mother said.

"I was a little shocked. It was a surprise. But that's my Heather," Sherry Kerber said of her daughter's decision to serve aboard submarines. "She loves a challenge."

"Oh yeah," Kerber's brother, Jeffrey, 21, quickly chimed in.

"Everything she's ever done, she's been pretty much the best at," he added.

Kerber explained, standing on a pier at the Naval Submarine Base after just sharing the traditional first kiss with her wife, Cecille, that she was drawn to submarines because she thought it would be more challenging than the traditional first tour for a supply officer.

She earned her gold dolphins, signifying she's qualified in submarine warfare, the day she left for deployment. About 30 members of the Virginia's crew earned their dolphins while deployed, but Kerber was able to be pinned by Cecille, 32, just before leaving.

"I lucked out in that the person who I wanted to pin me got to," Kerber said.

In addition to Cecille, Kerber's mother, father, brother and sister traveled from California to attend the homecoming.

"We dropped everything," Sherry Kerber said.

The family was among a crowd of about 200 who waited under a cloudy sky threatening rain for the Virginia's return, holding up signs, waving American flags and snapping pictures and recording videos with their cellphones as the submarine, which had a giant blue and yellow lei wrapped around its sail, made its way to the pier.

The Navy officially lifted its ban on women serving on submarines in 2010, first allowing female officers to begin their training. Female officers have served on submarines since 2011. Women are serving with 18 crews and aboard 11 boats.

On the Virginia, the women share a stateroom, and an easily reversible signs hangs outside the bathroom to indicate whether a woman or a man is inside. Otherwise, no changes have been made to accommodate the women.

Cmdr. Jeffrey Anderson, commanding officer of the Virginia, said the crew of 135, made up mostly of men, has welcomed the women aboard. He said the women "performed exceptionally" while deployed. All of the crew members, whom he calls warriors, exceeded all of his expectations and executed their missions flawlessly, he said.

j.bergman@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects that Lt. j.g. Kerber earned gold dolphins not silver dolphins.

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