Alumni & Friends
A Commanding Presence
At 27, Darlene Iskra (B.A., '74) didn't enlist in the U.S. Navy with plans to change history. She simply wanted a job that offered security and benefits, promotional opportunities and a chance to travel.
Her seemingly random life choice led her to the Naval School of Diving and Salvage in Washington, D.C. Iskra graduated in 1980 -- one of the first three women to complete the rigorous program. "Darlene made it through that school," recalls her first diving chief Mike Fitzpatrick, "then came another challenge which was harder yet. That was breaking into the male-dominant world of going to sea."
As a diving officer on the U.S.S. Hector, Iskra conducted an underwater propeller change for another destroyer -- an innovative repair that had previously been conducted on a dry dock. Lesa McComas, who served with Iskra recalls, "Darlene never let anybody tell her she couldn't do something because she was a woman -- or for any other reason, for that matter."
In 1990, Iskra made history again by becoming the first woman commander of a commissioned naval vessel; the ship was aptly named the U.S.S. Opportune. She says her coursework at SF State prepared her for the role. "My degree in recreational studies really helped give me the confidence and skills to stand up and talk in front of large or small groups of people, something crucial later in the Navy." As a commander, especially a female one, Iskra never experienced a lot of camaraderie. "I had no idea when I first joined the Navy that being a woman would be such an issue," she says. "A lot has changed but there is room for a great deal more."
During the Persian Gulf War, Iskra and her crew were stationed in the eastern Mediterranean, ready to assist ships in distress. Later, the Opportune was tasked with cleanup in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, a humanitarian effort Iskra enjoyed. "It felt good to be able to help, to be right there cleaning and tearing up water-sodden carpets from schoolroom floors," she says.
Iskra retired from the Navy in 2000. She has two master's degrees and recently completed her Ph.D. dissertation, a study on senior women in the military who successfully climbed the ranks. Though she is humble about her accomplishments, Iskra is proud of the path she has forged for women following her. She helped pass the 2003 Defense Authorization Bill while working as a Women's Research and Education Institute Congressional Fellow with Washington State Senator Maria Cantwell. The bill forbade the Department of Defense from requiring U.S. servicewomen to wear ethnic garments -- headdress, scarf and robe -- while stationed in Saudi Arabia. "Making naval women wear the abaya was ridiculous," she says. "It totally undermined their rank, and undercut their ability to do their job." The work earned Iskra the 2005 University of Maryland, College of Behavioral and Social Sciences Phillips Award.
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