- You joined Navy Reserve Officer Training Command (NROTC) at Duke University – what was your motivation? When did you know you wanted to be in the Navy?
“So, I showed up for school at Duke, and my Dad told me he could pay for one year of college. So as soon as I got to Duke, I went and knocked on the ROTC guy’s door. They were excited because I was pursuing an engineering degree, and back then, engineers were what they were looking for. So, after a year of doing the college program where you do all the ROTC stuff but don’t get the scholarship, they picked me up for a three-year scholarship and then they paid for college. At the end of that, my plan was, I was going to flight school, so I was like, “Yep, I’ll do my two years of flight school and my seven years of commitment after that, and then I’m getting out.” So, really, the more interesting question is, “What made me stay in the Navy?” It has been such a great career. I love going out into the world and making a positive difference, and the Sailors I have been able to work with over the past two-and-a-half decades are absolutely outstanding. One of my favorite things about the Navy is the fact that, no matter how contentious the world is out there, here on board, we all wear the same uniform, we all look the same, and regardless of what your beliefs or your personality is off the ship, we all come together as one team. Some days you feel when you’re on board the ship, it’s closer to the ideal of America than what’s out there in the real world.
- You’ve been involved in a considerable amount of humanitarian and rescue-type missions, which are a side of the Navy many people don’t know about. Why are those missions important, and how does it make you feel to have been involved in more than just the warfighting aspect of the military?
I’ll start by saying that, while that stuff’s cool, we’re primarily a fighting force. We train for the fight, and we develop all these skills. I’ve been fortunate over my entire career that, while I’ve been ready to fight, it was only really the opening days of Iraqi Freedom, back in 2003, that I was able to fly what I would consider real combat missions. The rest of the time, I had to gain all of these skills, flying helicopters and all that. I’ve had the opportunity to use that to help people, which is kind of neat. I definitely remember right after hurricanes Ike and Gustav, in 2008, I was the CO of a squadron in Jacksonville, and we basically positioned ourselves in Mississippi, and then as the hurricanes came through Huston, we slid right in behind. That night in the dark, I’m out there in my night vision goggles, flying low, using all the skills I learned to do combat search and rescue, but now I’m using them to safely navigate through cities that have no electricity and avoid power poles and search for people who need our help, so that’s really satisfying. I saw that again during Operation Tomodachi. We were helping out the Japanese after their tsunami. And on that one, you know, the military has a whole skillset for dropping bombs on targets, assessing what happened there, and then figuring out what needs to happen next. We took that whole process and used it for humanitarian relief, where we would have helicopters drop different loads of supplies, and they would go into these little isolated villages where the roads had been cut off, and then they would deliver their supplies, and then radio up to a command and control platform and ask what else do they need in this village. We could communicate that, say, this village needs dog food and water, and that village needs diapers. So, same concept – we’re putting the right stuff in the right area, assessing the effects, and using that whole warfighting skillset, but using it to help people. That felt really good.
I was in the Arabian Gulf during my skipper tour and we were working with Marines, doing some fast roping onto the carrier. And I got a call that there was a vessel that was in distress. There was a U.S. ship that was coming up on it, but the waves were so big at the time that they couldn’t get alongside to get the people off. The ship was sinking. So, on that one, we loaded up a corpsman and headed off to the ship. It was a small sort of freighter thing. It was really moving, and I had to slide the helo in between two masts, and then just hang there for 45 minutes, just moving with the ship. And we lowered our crewmen down, and we lifted 13 guys off of that ship and then moved them over to the U.S. ship. That was one where, it was 20 years of helicopter flying experience, and it took all of that experience to be able to pull that off. And then when we landed on the U.S. ship and shut everything down, I went in and talked to the captain of the ship and found out it was an Iraqi crew. I pulled the patch off my flight suit and gave it to him, so he would remember that, when he was in distress, it was the Americans who came to help him. I wanted to try to drive that political part home. But it was neat to be able to take all of that experience and draw on it right in that moment and help some people out.
- This isn’t your first time stepping foot onboard Nimitz. What are some of the less obvious differences you think you’ll experience this time around?
The first time I came on this ship was 1995, and I was a Lieutenant in what was then HS-8 – which is still onboard, as HSC-8 – the “Eightballers”.
One things is that when you walk around on the flight deck, there’s a completely different set of aircraft onboard. So, we had F-14 Tomcats, S3s, we were flying SH-60Fs and HH-60Hs, so all of the planes – there were some new F-18s, but the F-18E, F, and Gs weren’t onboard yet, so it was an older looking air wing, but it was still awesome!
As I thought back to that one, that was the first cruise I went on that had e-mail. It was my second deployment, but that was the first time we had e-mail. I was in charge of that in the squadron. So, we had one computer in the ready room. Everyone would come and type up their personal e-mail in the ready room, and then I would save them all to a three-and-a-half-inch disc, walk down to Comms, load that up, and then push that all out. And I had to watch everyone’s e-mail stream by, so, you had to watch it all – you weren’t reading it, but you were just making sure there were no hiccups on it – and you got little snippets on it – and it kind of let me know that we all kind of think the same stuff. Like, everyone misses their loved ones, and is looking forward to seeing them, and you’d just see that over and over again as it went by. We’ll all experience that one cruise, but we’ll have real e-mail, and have real-time connections. When I was done pushing those out, I would take all of the incoming e-mails, load them to the disc, take them down to the ready room, and we would print them out and distribute them out to the work centers.
- How did you earn the call sign “Crash”?
It’s a car thing. I showed up at my squadron to be the XO, and after the change of command I went from being the new guy to the XO, and I was still trying to arrange my personal property stuff. So, I jumped in the car and turned my cellphone back on and there was a voicemail from the movers, and I put in my little Bluetooth ear piece and started driving down to the change of command reception. As I was driving down, the movers are yelling in my ear and telling me I had an hour to get my stuff or I wouldn’t see it for two weeks and I looked down to see if there was a piece of paper to write down the number they were giving me and I looked up and all the cars in front of me had stopped and I jammed on the brakes and hit the car in front of me. I got out to see an Airman in front of me. I wanted to make sure she was okay and noticed she was wearing the flight suit and I asked her if she was part of the command and she said “Yes” and I said, “Well hi, I’m your new XO.”
- Is Nimitz a ’57 Chevy, or a ’74 Pinto?
I think she’s a ’57 Chevy. So, my last ship was USS Denver. Denver was commissioned in 1968. This one, the keel was laid in 1968. I had command of that ship for a year, and she was 44 years old when I was in command. This ship’s only 42. So, this is actually a newer, younger ship. But the great thing about being on an older ship is the history of the ship. On Denver, she was out there for the fall of Saigon, during the Vietnam War. And I got a letter and a book from a Vietnamese woman who, at the end of the war, gave all her money to a fisherman who took her out to the flotilla of U.S. ships that were receiving everyone from Saigon, and she jumped off that fishing boat and into the water, and USS Denver was the ship that came and rescued her. She got back to the U.S. and she reconnected with an Air Force guy who was the father of her children back in Vietnam, and they went on to have a great and wonderful life together. The book was about her success as an immigrant here in the U.S. But her big thing was that she remembered being pulled out of the water by the USS Denver. There are stories like that for the Nimitz, too. The Nimitz has been around for 42 years. In 7th grade, I remember sitting in Social Studies learning about current events. The current event at the time was the Iranian revolution and the hostages. The U.S. made an attempt to rescue those hostages, and that rescue attempt launched off of Nimitz in the Indian Ocean.
- What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far in your career?
So, I think dealing with tragedy has been one of the biggest ones. When I was a squadron XO, the CO clipped a wire at Fallon, and that helicopter went down, and we lost him, his co-pilot – everyone on that helicopter died. So, I was the XO and then that became my challenge over the next year. I mean, we lost three crewmen and two pilots, including the CO – that blows a big hole in the middle of a 200-person organization. So, there was the initial dealing with all of that stuff and the memorials, and then the follow-on challenge was rebuilding the squadron. That happened in May, and we deployed in October. So, one, we had to finish all of our training to be ready to deploy, and then being out on deployment and remembering all of those folks and honoring their sacrifice, but still going out and being successful. So, that was a big challenge. That tends to be, not on that extreme level, but certainly in this seat, I hear a lot – I get a lot of stories of people having bad moments in their lives. I see it at Captain’s Mast. That whole helping people get through that stuff and continue to succeed in their life I think is the biggest challenge of being a leader.
- What are some of the most rewarding experiences you’ve had in your career?
On the professional side, it’s got to be all of the humanitarian stuff we talked about earlier. That’s been really rewarding. On the individual side, I think it is any time I’ve gotten to help someone reach their goals. Just an example from my last tour, I had a senior chief come into the Missile Warning Center – it was a joint tour in Colorado Springs – and he was very intent on becoming a master chief. But I watched how he was interacting not just with the Sailors I had, but with the Marines, the Air Force guys – they started coming to him as a mentor. So, I pulled him into my office and said, “You’re exactly the kind of person that the Command Master Chief Program is looking for.” So, he said, “Wow, I hadn’t really thought about that.” So, he put in for Command Senior Chief, was picked up for that, and then a month later, the Command Master Chief board came out, and he promoted to Command Master Chief. So, very quickly, within a year of him and I sitting down and having that conversation, he went from being an OSCS to becoming a Command Master Chief. And, you see stories like that all the time. It was really satisfying pinning the anchor with the two stars on him. He’s a Command Master Chief on a destroyer in Norfolk now. So, anything like that, where I can spot a Sailor and see the Warrant Officer, or I see a lot of potential and can nudge them in the right direction, give them the support, write them that letter of recommendation, and then see them go on to succeed. That’s really satisfying.
- This isn’t your first ‘old’ ship…what tips do you have for Sailors fighting the oldest aircraft carrier in the Fleet?
So you’ve got to take care of her. That goes back to 3M. You have to do maintenance and you have to do it right. The other thing is as you’re walking around, don’t walk past things. I was with the Air Wing for 20 years, so this would be my 3rd ship’s company tour and my nose has been my biggest friend finding stuff on the ship. I’ll be walking along and I’ll catch a whiff of something, whether it’s ozone or the smell of something burning or a chemical smell. You just kind of stop and say, “Wow, that is not a smell I would normally expect here,” and you can’t just keep going. You have to stop and figure out where it’s coming from. In the shipyard one time, they had put up lighting, like temporary lighting, the strings with the lightbulbs and the little cages. Someone was going to paint that space so what they had done was they we’re taping everything so someone had wrapped tape all around the light bulb so that’s what was burning. If we take care of the ship she’ll take care of us. If we don’t do the maintenance, the maintenance will schedule itself.
- Do you have a sea story you can share with us?
I shared a story with my indoc guys last week. This was also a Reagan one, but on Reagan we had a young 3rd class Petty Officer who was on the flight deck and an F-18 was taxiing to get ready to launch. With the launch, there’s a guy on the flight deck whose sole job is to hold up a board that shows the weight of the aircraft. He says, “Hey, I think this is how much you weigh.” The guy in the cockpit gives a thumbs up saying “Yup, that’s how much I weigh,” and based on that, we decide how much force we’re going to put behind the catapult to get the right end speed, and air speed when he comes of the end of the ship so that plane at that weight is ready to fly. That pilot just put down a number he usually puts down and normally he was doing real missions or fighter missions but on this particular day, he was the tanker. He had five gas tanks on board. Now that’s a very heavy jet, but he had put down the weight for a normal jet. The weight they showed him was lower than it should have been, but he just gave the thumbs up. This young 3rd class Petty Officer saw that, looked at the jet, looked at the weight, and based on his experience, thought to himself “There’s no way that jet weighs that little.” The jet went into tension and then he stood up as a 3rd class Petty Officer on the flight deck and suspended the launch. What was cool about that was that in that moment, he was paying attention so he recognized that there was a problem. He had the confidence to feel that he had the power to stand up and fix that. That goes down to my idea that there’s no extra Sailors on the ship. I had an admiral that told me the most important Sailor on the ship changes from moment to moment. In that moment, he was the most important person on the ship and he stood up and did the right thing. I’d like to challenge all the Sailors on the ship and tell them, at some point during your tour, you will be the most important person on the ship. In that moment, will you be awake, will you be paying attention and will you put in the effort to train yourself so that in the moment when you’re the most important person on the ship, you’re going to stand up and do the right thing?
- What do you think will be the hardest part of leading Nimitz?
So, I joined Nimitz around Thanksgiving. And, it was very apparent to me that this was a crew that was recovering from a really difficult yard period. So, we need to get past that. Instead of looking backwards and saying, “Hey, we had this really difficult yard period, and we’re recovering from that,” we need to say, “Hey, we are a war ship and we’re going to sea. We need to prepare for combat.” So, we need to look forward and be ready to do that. But, on the backside of cruise, we’re going back in the yards. So, I think the challenge is going to be flipping the switch from maintenance to sustained combat operations, and then flipping it right back to maintenance. So, definitely working hard to talk about how important both parts of that are, and then doing the shift. I’m pretty sure there are some Sailors onboard right now who are not excited about going back into the CIA and doing that again. We’re starting the preparations for that next month. You do a big conference for that one year in advance, to set the stage, identify the key players and have them start prepping. But, by doing that stuff a year in advance, big Navy, and I as the CO, and Brian Fazio, my counterpart in that, we’re all very committed to getting that done in 16 months.
- You have so much on your plate. How do you stay organized?
I have 18 department heads, and all of them were hand selected to be a department head on a carrier. So, everything from the PAO, where this is a career milestone tour for her, to the Reactor Officer – he’s already commanded a ship. My OpsO, my XO, my Air Boss, my Navigator – they’ve all had command before. And then you see folks like the Supply Officer – this is essentially a command equivalent tour for him. So, I have a ton of talent available to me. So, yes, there are a lot of details going on. But my challenge is to kind of pull back and think big picture, “What’s coming up?” and offer direction to this huge pool of talented individuals I have and make sure they’re headed in the right direction. If I’m getting sucked down into the details of what any one individual department is doing, then that becomes a problem because I’m not staying up at the level I need to be, up on the bridge, thinking about how they all integrate with each other.
The other key piece I have is super talented XO. Captain Marzano is very organized, very talented. I’m bummed I only get him for three months. But, I know Captain Kurtz is coming in behind him who is just as talented. I had a chance to meet him because he was onboard for Thanksgiving, and I’m excited about watching him get up to speed and having him for deployment.
- What are you most looking forward to?
Interacting with the Sailors. You’ve got 3,100 Sailors, so it’s hard to get to know them all, but I’m already starting to, as I wander around the ship. There are some Sailors where I’m like, “Hey, I remember you. I saw you at the holiday party, or we did that MWR thing, or you gave me a tour of this space.” So that’s good. It’s hard to get to know all 3100 Sailors. A lot of times I try to do my best to remember one thing about a Sailor. I’m decent with faces, but names always get me, so I might be like, “Hey, you’re the machine shop person.”
The other thing I’m looking forward to is just getting underway. It is pretty amazing to sit in that chair up on the bridge and watch F-18s go shooting into the night. One of my favorite launches is the first tanker of the night because those guys have to do an afterburner launch, so especially if there is a little haze or something, watching that thing go into after burner and all the noise, and then goes off the bow and then you watch those two twin pillars of flame climb of through the sky, that’ awesome.
The other great thing about deployment is all the cool stuff we get to see. I don’t know what ports we’re pulling in to, but I know they are going to be ports in the middle east and there’s just food and people and sights and sounds and smells over there that are just fantastic. So, looking forward to getting out there and looking forward to sharing that experience with all the first term Sailors who haven’t gotten a chance to do it.
12.) Bon Jovi or Springsteen?
Springsteen. I was playing “Born to Run” in here just last night. I figured out how to hook up my laptop to the stereo system so if you come in here at night, I’m cranking tunes.
13.) What can Nimitz expect from you as the CO in the coming months?
In the coming months, I want to shift from that maintenance mentality to the getting ready for a combat mentality. I want to make sure that the families are ready for us to deploy. The last time this ship deployed was 2013, so it’s been four years, so we don’t have a lot of families, other than those who are long time Navy families, who are used to their loved one disappearing for six or seven months. So we’re going to do a lot this spring with cleaning up the FRG. We just hired some new ombudsmen, and doing those pre-deployment briefs. We want to build those lines of communication out to the families to make sure they’re ready.
For me, I want everyone on the ship to succeed. We all have goals in our life and our journey in reaching that goal has brought all of us here, together on the Nimitz. Part of reaching your goal individually means we all need to succeed here together on Nimitz. Being a part of a successful ship always looks good on your resume in whatever you’re doing going forward. I want to do everything I can to help everyone succeed as an individual, and what I need back from folks is their commitment for all of us to succeed together on this ship. It’s a give and take. I love when I go to indoc and I meet that young Sailor that, when asked what they want to do in the Navy, they say they want to use their GI bill, and they want to take PACE classes, and it’s all about what the Navy can do for them, and that’s cool, because the Navy can do that, but that person I always ask, “Well awesome, what are you going to do for the Navy?” I’ve always found that working hard to succeed at the job is the best way to get all that other stuff. If you’re coming aboard getting all your quals quickly, being super successful at your assigned job and doing the extra things, the collateral duties, pretty soon, someone is going to notice you, and your chief, or your division officer, or maybe me, is going to pull you aside and say, “Hey, you’re exactly what kind of person we’re looking for to go to this college program or to this commissioning program or to this special duty at the White House.” If you put in the commitment to make Nimitz succeed, we’ll make sure that your life heads in a good direction.
14.) Who, or what, is your inspiration as a leader?
So super obvious answer, I’m halfway through Admiral Nimitz’ biography. Admiral Nimitz, we hear all about how smart he was, how driven he was, what an accomplished leader he was. My favorite thing about that book so far is what a gentleman he was. His big thing was, even when he had folks working for him who weren’t meeting his standards, he wasn’t all about firing them, denigrating them, anything like that. His concern was, “Okay, I need to get this guy out of my organization, but I need to do it in a way that preserves his dignity and in a way that lets him or her move on to a different job and still be successful in their life.” I had a CO back when I was a department head who kind of did that at Captain’s Mast. At every Captain’s Mast he finished with a discussion of, “Alright, you’ve made a mistake, you’ve been punished for it, now let’s talk about how you’re going to get back into the squadron, and go on and be a successful Sailor in the Navy.” Seeing that again in Admiral Nimitz, that’s inspiring to me. You get to see a lot of leaders throughout your naval career, and now that I’m a leader, I know everyone is watching me, because I’ve been watching them. Some of those leaders, all they’ve given me is a list of things not to do, but everyone has taught me something, and I’ve been fortunate to have been exposed to a lot of accomplished folks. You have to take the pieces that fit you. I think if I tried to be someone else, very quickly, the folks on board would figure that out, so that’s why at night if you come in here you might hear Metallica playing on the import cabin speakers and crack the occasional joke, because that’s who I am.
Story by Siobhana McEwen