Interview with a female sailor
LT(N) Sherrielynn Mullins, Combat Systems Engineering Officer
Why did you choose to join the Canadian navy?
I didn’t know anything about the military in high school in Cape Breton. I
went to St. Francis Xavier University for one year but then was looking into
other things, as University was very expensive. I had a friend in University
who told me about an upcoming military recruitment interview, which would
provide a full scholarship at the Royal Military College (RMC) to those
successful. So, I decided to go to the interview.
When and how were you successfully recruited?
I was recruited in 1992 when I was 19 years old. I had to go through two
separate interviews before I could join the navy. The first one consisted of
an aptitude test to evaluate competency in English, Math and Basic Physics.
I passed that interview and went on to a second, where I was assessed as to
my knowledge of current affairs and it’s relation to the military. I also had
to complete a fitness test at that time. The recruiter questioned me about
my marks and how much time I spent doing my homework.
Once recruited, why did you decide to become a Combat Systems Engineer?
I didn’t know much about the different trades. I was shown some videos and
given some contact numbers to ask questions. Combat Systems Engineer
seemed interesting to me as it dealt with radar and antenna theory, as well
as the theories of e-cept (electronic intercept) and communication
intercept, which have to do with spy work in picking up communication
between other countries.
Where did you train to become a Combat Systems Engineer?
I spent four years at the RMC (Royal Military College) located in Kingston,
Ontario. All navy engineers went to that school.
What was it like?
Classes were provided in French or English (depending on your language), but
all other operations were performed in both languages. One week was run
entirely in English and the next entirely in French, and then it would rotate.
The goal of this was to produce functionally bilingual individuals.
Were there many women in your class?
Out of the 1996 graduating class of 23 engineers in all of Canada, there
were only two females. I became a Combat Systems Engineer; the other
female became a Marine Systems Engineer, which has to do with diesel,
water, refrigeration, electrical, and nuclear biochemical filter work.
Wow, are there still so few women today?
The ratio has grown immensely since 1980, which was the first time that
women were let into the RMC. 11/32 engineering graduates in 2001 were
female and the number of women in different trades is growing constantly.
Today, the split is probably closer to 40:60.
Did you ever feel discriminated against because you were a woman?
I never felt that my peers (classmates) looked differently at me unless I
made a mistake. At times, I felt favored by some of the instructors, which
made me feel uncomfortable, as it didn’t help me fit in with my classmates.
These experiences however weren’t prevalent, they were far and few
How is the attitude of those that you work with on ship?
Sometimes, I feel as though some older people are looking at me saying: “who
is she” because they’ve been in longer than me even though I’m in a position
of authority over them. In general though, I feel there’s a real cohesion, a
sense of camaraderie, and professionalism. I feel proud to be part of a
What are your daily routines in port and at sea?
In port, we complete planned and corrective maintenance. Technicians run
trials and tests on operations of systems, then come to me, the Combat
Systems Engineer, if a problem comes up or if parts are needed. I provide
training to sailors in fire refresher and continuously supervise the well being
of people in my section. I provide briefings to the captain on a weekly or
biweekly basis in Port, and daily at sea. If the radar, antenna, or weapons
systems are not working properly, I am responsible for briefing the captain
on the seriousness of problems for our operations while at sea. Some
possible roles in my trade are acting as part of the boarding party, and being
a safety officer.
What are your long-term tasks?
As a Combat Systems Engineer, my long-term task is career progression. I
will continue my education throughout my entire career. Next, I will train in
becoming Assistant Head and Head of Department, and then continue to
staff schools and move to a higher rank. (ie. Commander) On the ship, my
main goal is to get the missile in the air the way it is supposed to.
Are you able to keep in contact with your family while at sea? If so, how?
Yes, of course we’re able to remain in contact with family. We send and
receive letters, postcards and packages via post. We also have weekly
telephone access and daily e-mail access. Before this past year, we weren’t
able to uplink more than once a day on the Iroquois as we were only using one
system that didn’t permit the use of other radars at the same time, due to
limitations of the frequency band. Now however, we have proper Ethernet
wiring throughout the ship and use Inmarsat (International Maritime
Satellite) and Nera Bravo (another satellite system). This was a new
installation allowing for continuous connectivity with no interference
Do you need to be good in Math to be a Combat Systems Engineer?
You need to be strong in Math to be able to understand what is happening in
the Combat room everyday. Signal detection analysis is all Math-related,
this is where the signal goes through a processor and is mixed with a higher
What are some benefits about being in the Canadian Navy?
To begin with, the medical benefits are excellent! We get 100% coverage of
everything (excluding the cosmetic). Working hours in Port are 8:00 – 4:00.
One thing that makes a huge difference for me is that we are permitted 4
hours of physical fitness per week during work time. My pay is also decent;
I presently receive $60,000/year, with annual increments and incentives.
There is good job stability and I get to travel, seeing the world at no extra
cost to myself. I meet people from different nations and learn different
cultures from first hand experience. Onboard ship, there is also a close-knit
sense of family. Above all, I feel that a Combat Systems Engineer is an
extremely fulfilling career if one is ready for the challenge.
What do you feel is the downside of being in the Canadian Navy?
Stability of the job requires sacrificing stability in the home. My husband is
also a Combat Systems Engineer and we find that we have little energy left
at the end of the day to spend with our child when we return home from
work. The time we spend away from family and friends when sailing for a
long period is also difficult, especially with a small child. Living in confined
quarters on the ship leaves a lot to be desired. Unfortunately, the divorce
rate is high in general among those in the military. I feel one reason this
may be is due to the fact that some people go on some ugly missions and
come back as changed people, after what they’ve seen.