What is a trailblazer?

Dr. Darlene Iskra, adjunct instructor, sociology, is a Navy pioneer.

USS Opportune

“In 1992, Darlene Iskra took an opportune time to become the Navy's first female one of these, on the USS Opportune."

The question stumped Jeopardy participants that day in 2009, but it won’t stump Columbia College graduate students lucky enough to study under a new Columbia College instructor in the Master of Arts in Military Studies program: Dr. Darlene Iskra, uniquely qualified Online Campus instructor and the first female commander of a U.S. Navy vessel.

That the rescue and salvage vessel was named USS Opportune was just fortuitous.

Iskra earned her master’s degree and doctorate in sociology from the University of Maryland and another master’s in national security and strategic affairs from the Naval War College. She has written two books, “Women in the United States Armed Forces: A Guide to the Issues” and “Breaking through the Brass Ceiling.” She retired from the U.S. Navy in April 2000.

Her rise to command was anything but easy, however.

Iskra enlisted in the Navy in 1979 at age 27, coming off a divorce and in need of a change. She began her Navy career at Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Rhode Island where, she said, she was treated as an equal.

Dr. Darlene Iskra, adjunct instructor, sociology

Iskra then went to the Navy Diving and Salvage Training Center, one of only two women in a class of 15 students. Again, she was treated just like her male classmates except for pull-ups. Men did pull-ups and the women did "hangs" (holding yourself from a bar). Otherwise, the women divers had to do the same number of sit-ups and push-ups and run and swim as fast as the men, she said in an earlier interview.

"There were times I wanted to quit," Iskra said. Her one fellow female classmate kept her going. "She told me, 'You aren't quitting because I'm not staying here by myself.' "

Iskra then enrolled in Surface Warfare Officers School, learning about navigation and how to pilot a ship.

"I'd practice in my car. Every time I wanted to turn, I'd call out 'right full rudder' or 'left full rudder,' "Iskra said.

After training for 20 months, Iskra was assigned as the diving officer for the USS Hector, a Navy repair ship. The USS Hector and other repair ships are essentially floating, globe-spanning shipyards.

She made lieutenant -- then hit the brass ceiling as she was assigned to shore duty.

“In the mid-1980s, the Navy realized if they wanted to keep women, they needed to give women a viable career path,” Iskra has said. “They opened a whole new set of ships that they suddenly determined were non-combatants.”

Dr. Darlene Iskra, the first female commander of a U.S. Navy vessel

Iskra was back at sea in 1984, named commander of the Opportune in 1990 and deployed overseas during Desert Storm.

“It was a responsibility I did not take lightly,” Iskra said. “I thought a lot about how I would react if we were attacked.” Of her command in general, Iskra said at the time, "Don't treat me any differently; I am the commanding officer and that's it."

In 2002, working for Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., as a congressional fellow, Iskra learned about a female Air Force combat fighter pilot who had been stationed in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. There, women in the Air Force are required to wear an abaya (head to toe cloak, or robe-like dress) off base, cannot drive and must walk behind men.

The pilot objected primarily because she was a Christian and didn’t want to wear Muslim dress.

“My take on it was more secular,” Iskra has said. “It’s undermining her authority as an officer. Here she is supposed to be leading these men and she has to dress in the abaya and walk behind them?”

Cantwell and another senator co-sponsored an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill forbidding the Defense Department from requiring women to wearing the abaya.
“Unfortunately, it only referred to Saudi Arabia,” Iskra said. “Now women in Afghanistan are wearing head scarves … They are toting guns, with men in full combat gear, helmet and all, but they’re wearing headscarves. Come on!”

About the Master of Arts in Military Studies at Columbia College
The Master of Arts in Military Studies at Columbia College is designed primarily to facilitate career advancement for personnel in the U.S. armed services, emphasizing military leadership and biography, military organizations and civilian relations, peacekeeping, geopolitics and historiography from the perspectives of traditional disciplines such as history, philosophy and political science.

The program is taught entirely online. “I served 21 years in the Navy,” Iskra said. “I understand the military lifestyle … military students don’t have a lot of time to focus on their studies.” Online instruction means that a student has the flexibility to do homework at 3 p.m. or 3 a.m., but, she said, must also have the discipline to get it done.

Iskra added that a Master of Arts in Military Studies degree can prepare military personnel for post-military jobs in think tanks, with defense consulting firms or with defense contractors.

To learn more about the Master of Arts in Military Studies program at Columbia College, go to http://www.ccis.edu/online/academics/degrees.asp?MAMS.