Navy Life: So You Married (or are Dating) a Nuke

As a Navy wife, I am a member of multiple Facebook groups for Navy SOs. Some are local to where I am now or where I will be soon. Others are for Navy SOs in general, attracting women from all over the country (and some from all over the world!) to come together, meet each other, talk, and ask questions. One of the questions I see most often and that resonates the most with me are the questions from new nuke girlfriends or wives. Probably because at one point, I was a new nuke girlfriend. And now, I am a nuke wife.

The men (and women!) who find themselves in the nuke rate (rate being their job) find themselves in the most difficult and most certainly the most stressful job in the Navy. From the moment they leave bootcamp and start A school, they are thrown straight into the fire and never seem to stop being surrounded by flames. For the girlfriend, boyfriend, fiance(e), or spouse of a nuke, the program can be confusing and even stressful.

While we do not go through the long classroom and study hours during A school and Power School and the long working hours of Prototype, the SOs of nukes are thrust into a time of uncertainty, confusion, stress, and wondering if we’ll ever hear from our SO again with all the hours he spends in the Rickover. And that’s just the pipeline!

While I cannot speak for what life is like in the fleet (post-pipeline/training life), I can speak for the pipeline life. My husband is close to the end of his time in the pipeline and will very soon be sent to his first duty station in the fleet. It some ways, it’s crazy how time flies. When we first started dating, he was in A school. And now, he’s almost done. But at the same time, it feels like time stands still in the pipeline. I mean, when we started dating he was in the beginning of the pipeline. Now we’re married, living together off base, and he’s still not done. At least once a week, one of us is asked when we think we’ll be at our next place, or if we’ve heard where we’re going next, or if he’s finished yet. The answers to those questions are as follows: we’re not sure, yes, and no. 😉

But usually, when I see questions from people who are dating, engaged, or married to someone in the nuke program, they’re wondering what to expect. Maybe they’ve heard the horror stories or all they know is that he’s expected to be in training for his job for up to two years. Being on the SO side of things can be intimidating, especially after that first night your sailor has long study hours in the Rickover. Since they can’t bring their phones with them to class and their class materials can’t leave, that’s a lot of hours in the day where you have no contact with your person. Questions are left unanswered until late at night and conversations may be fleeting and interrupted by your nuke falling asleep while texting or on the phone. It’s easy to get discouraged or wonder if he has forgotten you or stopped loving you.

I am here to tell you, that’s not the case! And I am here to give you the run-down. The reassurance that, it’s going to be okay. Even when it’s been weeks since you had a decent conversation with him and your friend whose sailor is deployed hears from her husband more than you do. Even when he’s too tired to talk or just wants to veg out with Netflix or video games. Even when he falls asleep before calling you. He still loves you, he hasn’t forgotten you. He is doing one of the hardest things he will ever do. So, what exactly is he doing?

Just like with any rate, after bootcamp, nukes must go through additional training in order to learn how to do their job. There are three kinds of nukes: Electronics Technician (ET), Electrician’s Mate (EM), and Machinist’s Mate (MM). Each of these types of nuke has a different role to play in operating the reactors that allow aircraft carriers and nuclear powered submarines to run. My husband is an ETN finishing up the nuke pipeline. We started dating while he was in A school. The important thing to know up front about nuke school is that A school is just the beginning. After 3-6 months of A school (depending on your nuke’s rate – MM is 3 months, EM and ET are six months), there’s 6 months of power school, and at least 6 months of protoype (usually more). Plan on your nuke being in SC for at least eighteen months, if not two years. Unless he goes to Ballston Spa, NY for prototype. The amount of people sent to NY depends on the needs at both prototypes. Prototype almost always goes longer than six months. This is because the boats being used for prototype (at both plants) are really old. They break all the time and thus have to be shut down for repairs. They also occasionally go through routine shutdowns.

In A School and Power School, there are very few factors outside the norm that would set a nuke back in their schooling. Some of the factors that could though include illness, the birth of a child (if he chooses to use his paternity leave), inclement weather (hurricane season is real in SC!), and other related factors. One last thing that could delay graduation from either A School or Power School is failing comp. If a nuke fails comp at either stage, they have the opportunity to do a retake. If they pass the retake, they’ll continue on. If not, they will get re-rated and no longer be a nuke. 

During A School and Power School, nukes spend each day in a classroom at NNPTC learning the ins and outs of the technology they’ll be working with out in the fleet. They’ll learn the advanced math and science behind it, as well as how a reactor operates and what it needs in order to work. Generally, like any other job training, they’re in the classroom eight hours a day. Since what they are learning requires the highest security clearance, they are barred from bringing their phones or other electronics with them into the building. This means no texting between classes! Guess they’ll have to socialize. 😉

After class and in the evening, everyone has mandatory study hours. How long they have to spend in the building really depends on them and how well they’re doing. Grades on tests and evaluations each week determine the number of required hours you have to spend studying in the building the next week. Some may only have to do a couple hours a night, while others may have to spend their whole evening in the building. And this often varies from week to week, depending on the material they’re studying and how well they understand it.

After Power School comes prototype. Prototype is an odd bear where their hours are technically longer, but they’re set. The thing you can consistently rely on with prototype is those twelve hours shifts. The first seven weeks, they are on off-crew, working twelve hours a day for seven days a week. After that, they are sent to one of five crews and they start shift work. They rotate through four different schedules. The first three shifts are seven days long, with two days off after. The fourth is four days and ends with a four day weekend. Then it’s back to the beginning again. The hard shift (in my humble opinion) is mids, the overnight shift. It was especially difficult before we got married and I had work and class while he was asleep. We barely talked during those weeks, even less than we had with the other shifts.

My husband was in prototype during the weeks leading up to our wedding. If there is one thing I can recommend to a couple considering marriage, where one is a nuke-in-training, it is to get married before prototype. Trying to plan a wedding is hard enough without one person in the couple being unavailable for upwards of 14 hours a day, not including time they need to sleep. I will admit to feeling like I was planning a pretend wedding to be married to someone who didn’t exist. Nuke school can be really, really hard on a couple.

People often talk about all of the horror stories about nuke school. Unfortunately, the horror stories exist for a reason. Nuke school is extremely difficult for the sailor going through it. And if you happen to be dating, engaged to, or married to a sailor going through nuke school, you may sometimes feel like you’re going through it too. But here’s the thing: just because the horror stories exist, doesn’t mean that nuke school is hopeless or 100% bad.

The men and women that take on the Navy nuclear program are doing an incredible thing, something that very few people get the privilege to do. They are privy to information that only a small percentage of people know. They are some of the smartest – if not the absolute smartest – people in the Navy, if not the whole military. And, adversity has a way of bringing people together. My husband and I have made some wonderful friends through his time in the pipeline. We have other couples that we hang out with sometimes on weekends. We play card games, help each other stay awake for the switch on and off mids, gather for holiday meals when we can’t see family, and support each other when things get hairy.

The nuke pipeline is difficult. It will bring you and/or your sailor to tears at least once, if not multiple times. But you can let the hard times bring you closer together or you can let them tear you apart. Be gentle with your sailor. Let them be stressed out. Let them be quiet if they need to be quiet. Be there for them. They need your love and support during one of the hardest times in their life. Band together with other couples, adopt a single sailor or two, and make the best of your situation.

You may not find yourself loving Goose Creek, SC, but you will find yourself mourning when you leave. Not because you love the place, but because of the people and the experiences and the memories. Even in the midst of trials and adversity, there is hope. There is a light at the end of the pipeline. It does finish, it is not forever. Stay strong, Navy SO. You, your sailor, and your relationship can all survive nuke school.


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