Submarine Officer - Lieutenant James Lassahn

"to know that i was doing what the ship was designed to do was incredible....very few people know what we are doing during a mission and it's exciting to be a part of it..." 

what is your mission as a submarine officer?

I am an officer on a Los Angeles-class submarine. The nuclear powered fast attack submarine is capable of undersea and surface warfare, intelligence collection, show-of-force missions, strike missions, insertion of special forces, and search and rescue. Due to the shifting geopolitical landscape, more recently our mission is primarily intelligence gathering. 

What does your typical day look like in port?

While in port, I report to Naval Station Norfolk around 7:00 am, Monday through Friday.  I go down our pier, cross over a bridge onto the boat, walk along the scaffolding, and climb down into the sub. The chiefs and officers will meet in the morning to discuss what we are doing that day. Similar to officers in other communities within the Navy, I am in charge of a division and work for a department head, with a commanding officer in charge.  All 15 officers have the same initial training and qualifications but have varying administrative responsibilities and duties. I have had varying administrative roles but am currently acting as the communications officer. I am responsible for the Radio Division on board the ship and lead about 12 enlisted sailors. My division is responsible for maintaining and operating all of the equipment that allows the submarine to communicate while underway and in port. We review and approve official naval correspondence, manage the storage and distribution of classified and cryptic materials, and plan and execute maintenance.

In addition to that, I have a weekly responsibility to stand duty on the sub. When I am the duty officer, I report at 6:00 am and I am relieved at 6:00 am the following day. We have a formal turn over process where I discuss with the off-going officer, about the condition of the ship, what has happened in the past 24 hours, and what is planned for my shift. I tour the ship, take note of anything that is abnormal, and then receive the keys and badge. I look at the work plan that the commanding officers planned for that week, and sailors will tell me what maintenance has been done on certain pieces of equipment. I then look at how that specific piece affects the status of the ship, address any safety concerns, and figure out how many guys I need to get things done. During the 24-hour duty, I am responsible for all maintenance and authorizing all that goes on aboard the ship. The work is similar to an operations position at a power plant. Between standing duty and my job as the communications officer, I have a good balance between operational and administrative duties. 

WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY look like at sea?

Our crew will be made aware of our tasking about 9 months prior to going out to sea, and that will drive our training leading up to the deployment. Once the sub leaves the pier, the captain is in charge. We only have to answer to him, which can make for a smoother day, because there are things  required of us while in port, like inspections, that don’t happen out to sea. Many people wonder if submariners get bored, but if you look at an officer’s day at sea, ( three, 8-hour shifts) there is no time to get bored.

I wake up to my alarm on vibrate (because an officer will have 2 other roommates) or I will be woken up by a junior guy who is walking around the ship with a flashlight and a list of names. An enlisted person is sleeping in the same area as 60 other guys who aren't waking up at the same time, so an alarm is not standard. I get ready and meet the officer on duty that I am relieving. We go through the turnover process, and I am now the senior officer on duty. At that point, I am essentially taking custody over the ship - making all tactical decisions for the next 8 hours. I first tour the sub, checking out the sonar systems and fire control. I then get updated on where we are in the world, who we are operating with, what our current mission is, and review instruction from operational commanders. I will then go down and have the first meal of the day. The meals rotate so that you don’t wake up to the same meal every day. Officers on deck will either drive the ship or stand watch/operate the reactor. As the Officer of the Deck, I am ultimately responsible for the safe navigation, tactical employment, and security of the ship. During my 8 hour shift, I will order the course, speed, and depth of the ship. I will also deploy and implement weapons and sensors in order to meet the mission requirements of the ship. There could be 4 to 5 officers on duty at once with other positions beneath that may or may not be manned, depending on the status of the ship.

After 8 hours, I am relieved of that duty and I will go down for my second meal. I still have the ‘day’ job as communications officer, so in one day I do my operational job and then I move into my managerial job. At any point in time, we are ready for a drill - reactor casualty, fire, and flood. Every now and then a captain will simulate a drill where there is a torpedo in the water, and we perform the actions according to your responsibilities as officer on deck. It is a non-stop drill because although these types of incidents don’t occur frequently, if we do not respond immediately, we can lose lives, and possibly the entire ship. 

The last 8 hours of the 24 hour day is the time to sleep. There is time for watching movies, playing cards, and working out. Although, unlike an aircraft carrier with a designated gym, we may have a stationary bike stuffed behind a cabinet that you can climb onto. And if you fit, you have to lean to the left so you don’t hit your head. We all, at times, experience stress and there is no place to go for a walk so any exercise equipment we have is used frequently. Despite the small quarters, after standing and moving throughout the submarine, and going up and down ladders, being engaged mentally, I never have the feeling like I sat at a desk all day.

Wife, Katy, stands in front of the submarine moments before her husband goes underway

Wife, Katy, stands in front of the submarine moments before her husband goes underway

How does the lifestyle for an officer within the submarine community differ from that of an officer in another community?

We have roughly the same administrative duties as a small ship, like a destroyer, but have a much smaller crew of 15 officers. So the workload is greater per person, and that can be a cause of some discontentment for submarine officers. The positive side to having a small crew on the ship are the relationships. I know everyone on board, what their job is, and where they're from. I think we have a better working relationship. This is partially due to the close quarters, but also because an officer has a wide range of responsibilities, and it puts me in contact with a lot of people on our crew throughout the workday. Usually on a ship, officers and enlisted sailors have more separated space, but on a submarine I share my work space with my entire division, so there is no separation nor is there any privacy. This, however, has developed my leadership capabilities and the sense of community is strong.

We spend about 60 % of our time underway on average, during a sea tour. I am on a fast attack submarine and  if you are on a ballistic missile or guided missile submarine, the structure and tour schedules differ - there are nuances to each platform within the submarine community. We don’t necessarily go to sea more than a surface ship if you are comparing us to surface warfare officers. Communication however, is different and can be slower in terms of response. The submarine only communicates once or twice a day via email, and if we are in a hot area, we don't have time for email. Despite that, the communities at home are very strong. That brotherhood you have on the boat translates to close-knit spouses groups back at home.

How do you overcome those challenges while underway?

When enlisted crew members show up on the ship, they are 18 or 19 years old. The majority of the guys operating our ship are between 22-28 years old. There is a great responsibility at a young age, and it’s one of the best parts of the job. People often ask, “How do you put 150 men in a small tube, turn off the fresh air, and stay sane?”  From the captain down to the newest recruit, there is a bond or sense of brotherhood that isn't as common within other communities. Again, because of the close proximity and the size of the crew, you HAVE to get along with people. Most often, the people I work with are like-minded in that they are hard-working and dedicated to the job. I am trusting them with my life and that has a huge impact on morale. It makes the job possible, and it's the mojo that keeps us going.

What is the longest that you have gone without seeing daylight?

The longest I have been without sunlight is 49 days. We got fresh air maybe 3 or 4 times, while the remainder of the time we were making our own air. We were ‘submarining’ at its best. I wouldn’t say that’s common, but during missions, being submerged is the norm. We do have control of the lights and we rotate them according to the 24-hour cycle. When we expect the sun to be up, we turn all of the lights on, and when we expect the sun to be down we can turn all of the lights red. The most important reason for the red light, is that, if there was an emergency situation, the officers standing watch would need to be able to see if we were to surface. They wouldn’t have time for their eyes to adjust otherwise. This 24-hour working schedule is a recent change, however. We used to work on a 6-hour cycle of being on watch, off-watch, and sleep. We rolled through the day and actually the day shifts back 4 hours. That was the way things had always been done, but there were some health consequences to operating under those conditions. I have noticed a significant positive difference since the new schedule was put into effect.

When we do surface the submarine and pop up somewhere in the world after being underway for such a long time, all the stress dissipates. To open the hatch and see sunlight, breathe the salty air, and see waves and dolphins jumping - it this is the best feeling ever. To be just another ship out in the ocean -those moments are probably going to stay with me long after my time commitment.

First salute after graduating from (OCS) Officer Candidate School - Newport, RI

First salute after graduating from (OCS) Officer Candidate School - Newport, RI

What is the most exciting thing that has happened in your career?

I can proudly say that my ship has fired over 50 exercise torpedoes (the difference between an exercise and ‘normal’ torpedo is that it doesn’t explode on the other end). Although, I cannot say what we've done in mission, while simulating enemy exercises,  I have tactically engaged our ship with other submarines in close operating vicinity all while surface ships and aircraft were looking for us. We were really feeling the heat, and to know that I was doing what the ship was designed to do was incredible. Our crew, with an average age of 24-years, can train to deliver weapons under adversity. And in terms of naval technology, the submarine is an incredible machine. We provide intelligence that will end up on the President’s desk, and being the tip of the spear, so to speak, makes the career satisfying. Very few people in the world know what we are doing during missions, and every submarine mission is different. Even if it’s a show-of-force mission, like what ballistic missile submarines, it is important and exciting to be a part of it.

When did you know you wanted to be a submarine officer?

I wanted to be a fighter pilot for all the obvious reasons and grew up watching Top Gun. Someone told me that I might be too big to be a pilot, and I had eyesight concerns. I knew that I wanted to be in the military since high school and wanted to do something related to engineering. I was a freshman at Georgia Tech and hanging out with one of my friends when he asked if I had heard of a Naval program called NUPOC (Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate Program). When I saw the program, I was very impressed. I realized that I could meld my desire to serve and my natural engineering ability together to become a submarine officer, and so I applied to NUPOC.

I went through a rigorous screening process that started with an application, thorough background check, and medical evaluation. I was then invited to a personal interview with the director of Naval reactors in Washington, D.C. I was interviewed by a few engineers that measured my ability to problem solve. I interviewed with an Admiral who asked a few personal questions to assess my responsibility and integrity. I knew that day that I was accepted into the program. The candidates stood in a line, we raised our right hand while reciting an oath, and we were sworn into the Navy. Going into my sophomore year, I was a candidate in the program, but technically enlisted into the Navy in order to receive the benefits. I lived a normal life as a college student with no obligation to the Navy until graduation, while receiving scholarship that covered my degree, tuition, housing,  and books. I had healthcare and discretionary money to spend - the program is an incredible deal. Upon graduation, I reported to Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Newport, Rhode Island.

What is the training pipeline for a submarine officer?

We first start with Nuclear Power Training, which is approximately a year. Nuclear Power School is a classroom-based training program that prepares you academically. It lasts 6 months and then you move onto the nuclear prototypes, located in New York or Charleston, SC. I spent another 6 months of practical, hands-on training that qualified me to operate the nuclear reactor, which is similar to a licensing program in the corporate world. I headed to Groton, Connecticut for Submarine Officer Basic course where I learned basic tactics, damage control - basically how to be a submariner. Up to this point, our training only concerned the nuclear reactor and a shaft. We did simulators and had a lot of hands-on learning. Then I reported to my ship and started the qualification process for my plant and platform. This process takes approximately 12 months, and I earned my qualification pin, or dolphins, as an official submarine officer.

The submarine dressed for the holidays while in port

The submarine dressed for the holidays while in port

If someone is considering this career path, what would you say to them?

Because you cannot do the mission without operating the plant, nuclear power is king. Having an interest in math, science, and engineering is the first sign that this career could be for you. Also, ask yourself how you operate - are you self motivated and a driven individual? Think about what role you want to have. I had the choice earlier on in my career to transition to surface warfare, but ultimately, I knew that I wanted to be the one driving the ship. I wanted to be directly involved and have the opportunity to be in charge. There will most likely be an Navy ROTC Officer on your college campus. A college or university that is 'engineer heavy' will most likely have a dedicated presence of Naval Recruiters. Talk to a submariner and ask questions, even ones that might sound dumb.

You will receive incredible training that will make you competitive outside of the military as well. They compensate you for the challenges of the job. Outside of medical professions, I think we are the highest paid community in the military. I received a $15,000 bonus just for getting accepted into NUPOC. Once at sea, you receive additional ‘submarine’ pay that adds up as you a crew time and rank. Once  you are past your initial commitment there is opportunity for $35,000 bonus every year that you continue to serve. The Navy practically pays you for NOT leaving. The compensation is competitive.

is the choice to stay in or get out after the commitment SOMETHING EVERY OFFICER CONSIDERS?

It's pretty common. I have done a ton of training for this and love what I do. There is tight-knit community of submariners here that is rare. I am actively being recruited from outside companies, and I know that I am qualified to accept competitive jobs outside of the military. Again, the Navy generously compensates submariners, but there is cost to my family. My wife has career aspirations, and we have a baby on the way; it makes the constant moving and deployments less desirable. The great thing is that because of my experience, qualifications, and financial situation, I’m not stuck.  I get to choose my career path.