Good Afternoon, before I get into the guts of my remarks I want to spend a few moments acknowledging the people who made this special day possible.If you are not familiar with the USS San Francisco incident, go here, or here for the background.
To Laura McNett and Bob Crann at the Fleet Reserve Association – thanks so much for the use of the clubhouse. I cannot think of a more appropriate place to host this event. And don’t worry, I’ve had a few words with the boys and told them to go easy after the ceremony.
To all of my former shipmates, particularly Senior Chief Rob Enquist and Chief Tom Riley, and the rest of today’s ceremony participants. You are my brothers in arms.
To my fellow Veterans, I have reserved a special place in my heart for all of you. I have enjoyed interacting with you throughout my career, and I can never repay the debt of loyalty and support that you extended to me not only in my time of personal crisis, but also as I have worked through the transition to civilian life.
To all my family and friends who traveled great distances to be here today – words cannot do justice to the depth of my gratitude for you making such a monumental effort just to see me say goodbye to the Navy. I look forward to thanking you in a more personal way later today.
There are a few more people who I must mention by name. The two men sitting on the stage with me, Karl Hasslinger and Hass Moyer, and your lovely wives Donna and Katie. You all have taught me more about life, leadership, and friendship than any others. Also, my good friend Andy Hale who has just returned to the mainland from Guam. I’m truly blessed to have you as friends and I know we will continue our close relationships well beyond each others’ Navy years.
And of course, most important of all is my family: My brothers and sisters and my extended family, who are represented here today by two of my sisters, Kathy and Maureen, my Aunt Mary, and a cousin and Navy veteran himself, Neil Gallagher. My second family in Ireland, proudly represented today by the indomitable Joan D’Arcy, better known to the Western World simply as Mum. My Dad, who has cheered my Navy career from the sidelines for the past twenty years. And finally, my ladies, Avril, Laura and Tara. My speech would end abruptly if I even tried to explain out what my wife and kids mean to me. In short, you are my world, so we’ll leave it at that and I’ll get on with it –
I love the United States Navy. From the day I was sworn in as a midshipman with my good friend Bob Benford at the Duke University Navy ROTC program, the Navy has provided me one opportunity after another to lead a rewarding and fulfilling career and personal life. The Navy paid for my education at Duke that otherwise was well beyond my means as the fifth of seven children in a large Irish Catholic family from Long Island. After Duke, the Navy topped off my undergraduate education with its own special form of learning – nuclear power school. I hated it, and was happy to be shipped off to my first boat, USS BREMERTON based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The Navy gives, but the Navy expects payback as well. As BREMERTON underwent an extended overhaul in Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, I processed hundreds of work permits and thousands of tagouts. I think it’s fair to say that I paid back the Navy for all its education and other opportunities.
There’s no place quite like a Navy shipyard. Let me give you one example of the types of serious problems I had to deal with in this environment: Nuclear power safety regulations dictate that we must have a precise status of the reactor plant at all times, so we maintain this large, laminated status board, which stands waist high right behind where the engineering duty officer conducts his daily business in the engine room. On this status board, we keep track of hundreds of valve positions with tiny grease pencil markings: an “x” means the valve is shut, and a “o” means the valve is open. Well, we kept losing status of valve positions and we couldn’t figure out why. We were always very diligent and formal in our communications and operating procedures. Finally, one day we noticed some black grease pencil markings on the backside of one of our more portly officers. Being well-trained in the art of “root cause determination” – Brad Buswell and I soon discovered it was a big butt that was getting us in trouble. I left these experiences much wiser and more astute, and fully ready for future assignments that would call on my problem solving skills.
All joking aside, I did learn a lot during my submarine first assignment. I had a great set of teachers on BREMERTON, including my first skipper, Red Dawg McMacken, who made a special point of spending many hours one-on-one with each of his officers. The effect was contagious, and that crew on BREMERTON was the most knowledgeable of all that I ever served with.
But we really need to look back at history to place my first submarine assignment into context. The Cold War was raging, and our Submarine Force was at its zenith in size and influence. Our exciting and relevant missions played a huge part in the eventual demise of the Soviet Union. I was lucky enough to participate in several of these missions on USS HONOLULU. At this time, submarines were universally acknowledged as one of our nation’s primary assets in the battle against communist tyranny.
So as my first sea tour came to a close, I was faced with the decision to either remain in the Navy or join the rank and file of everyday civilians. As already mentioned, I had repaid my debt to the Navy for the opportunities it had given me. In the end, it was not chasing Soviet submarines that drove my decision to stay in the Navy. It was something else – it was the opportunity to lead great people like the very Sailors who have honored me by showing up today. I came to recognize that I enjoyed leading men to accomplish difficult missions in challenging environments, so I set a new goal for myself: become the Captain of a nuclear submarine.
Next up was a shore assignment on exchange with the Royal Navy, which taught me that there were different, and in fact BETTER, ways of doing business than the US Navy way. During this assignment, I fought in the final stages of the Cold War from a busy headquarters directing US and Royal Navy submarines on special reconnaissance missions. I also managed special programs with our Dutch, Danish and German allies. In my plentiful free time – remember what I said about the Royal Navy having better ways than we Americans - my new wife Avril and I traveled throughout Europe.
Revitalized after two years with the Brits, my next assignment brought me back to Pearl Harbor, this time on a boat fresh from new construction and ready for operations, USS COLUMBUS. First as Combat Systems Officer and then as Engineer, I enjoyed great success with my COLUMBUS shipmates. Thanks to great people like Glenn Robinson, Tom Wieshar, Mike Heck and Tim Sielkop, we discovered how to achieve excellence while still maintaining the focus where it belonged: on the people. After over 3 years on COLUMBUS, I knew that one day the Navy would give me the opportunity to command a nuclear submarine.
However, there were more dues to pay before this would occur. After leaving COLUMBUS, I reported to the Pentagon, where I learned a new combat skill: powerpoint warfare. While in the Pentagon, I was fortunate enough to work in a position where I had access to senior submarine Admirals, who were faced difficult decisions affecting the future of our undersea fleet. Since the Cold War had ended, many submarines fell under the budget axe as part of the so-called “peace dividend.” Despite these hardships, we still won some important battles, such as authorizing a new class of fast attack submarines, known today as the VIRGINIA class, and figuring out what to do with 4 TRIDENT SSBNs that were due for early retirement, which today are being converted to SSGNs. My Pentagon experience challenged me in many new ways, but was valuable primarily in that it brought me into contact with Captain Karl Hasslinger and a slew of other top-notch naval officers.
I soon had my best view of the Pentagon – in my rear view mirror – and Avril and I accomplished yet another cross country move – this time to Bangor, Washington for my first exposure to the ballistic missile submarine community. On USS GEORGIA BLUE with Hass Moyer as my skipper, my XO tour was a blast. Hass patiently let me learn and grow into the job. He laughed off my minor administrative blunders, and set me loose to fix the nagging problem areas while he led from the front with a big stogey in his mouth. Hass always had his priorities straight and taught me look at all issues through the prism of leadership. We had a magical chemistry on that fine ship and GEORGIA BLUE quickly became the assignment of choice for Sailors on the Bangor waterfront.
Avril and I returned to England in 2001, this time for a truly international assignment on a NATO staff. Now some of you may think NATO stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization - NOT TRUE. We never did settle on what the acronym NATO really denotes, but here were some of the contenders:
- Not At The Office
- Not After Two O’clock
- No Action Talk Only, and my personal favorite:
- Need Alcohol To Operate
All accurately describe NATO operations.
My most exciting day in NATO came when I received the phone call informing me of my next assignment: Commanding Officer of the USS City of Corpus Christi, based in Guam. Remember what I said about difficult missions in challenging environments? Well, I got it! And the mission would soon become even more difficult: COMSUBPAC re-directed me, along with several others, to the USS San Francisco. Despite SAN FRAN’s recent troubles, it soon became clear that I had gotten a great deal. SAN FRAN had a top notch and enthusiastic crew. Sure, there was a lot of work to do, but we dug in our heels and drove forward despite some huge challenges, particularly with the ship’s material condition and the inadequacy of Guam as a submarine home port. In just over a year, we had made remarkable progress. We steamed over 7000 miles from Guam to San Diego replace our propulsion shaft in a submarine drydock unavailable in Guam. We persevered through numerous ship's casualties including several major freon ruptures, a major electrical fire, two hydraulic ruptures, and on and on. Just like the SAN FRAN Creed states, we never gave up. We fixed the material problems, disciplined ourselves to operate efficiently and effectively, and finally went to sea for extended periods to conduct special reconnaissance operations. Just after being ranked as the best submarine in the Force in engineering readiness, we set off from Guam to Brisbane, Australia in January 2005. You all know how the cruel sea punished us during this journey, so I’ll bypass the details, but please allow me to shed some perspective on the events that followed. After suffering the worst possible shock in the history of nuclear submarine operations, every single Sailor on SAN FRANCISCO – yes, every single one – did his military duty. Some did much more than their duty and acted in truly heroic fashion: Matt Parsons, Craig Litty, Billy Cramer, Danny Hager, Jake Elder, Max Chia, Chris Baumhoff, Doc Akin, Gil Daigle, and more: Key, Miller, Pierce, Powell, Smoot, McDonald. I could go on. But one hero clearly stands above all the others, he was my favorite Sailor, and the one who I miss every day, Petty Officer Joey Ashley.
In the aftermath of our tragic grounding, we, the crew of SAN FRANCISCO, forged bonds that never can be broken:
– not by investigations, nor Admiral’s Mast, nor punishments
– not by grief, nor anger, nor sadness, and
– never by distance, space, or time
Why, you may ask, are these bonds so strong? Because as Chief Johnny Johnson surely would tell you, THERE ARE NO BONDS STRONGER THAN THOSE FORMED BY MEN WHO HAVE FACED DEATH TOGETHER. And on a very personal level, there is something even more remarkable: even though it was I who brought harm upon my men through my own shortcomings, today this room is filled with my SAN FRANCISCO brothers. Shipmates, I shall never forget your courage and loyalty and I was proud to serve as your Commanding Officer.
My final year in the Navy was spent under the command, for the second time, of my good friend, Hass Moyer. Hass warmly welcomed me to his staff at the Trident Training Facility, and gave me the freedom to work on a few projects while recovering from the wounds inflicted by that deadly uncharted sea mount. Outside of work, I kayaked among the orcas, became a soccer dad, ran a marathon, and prepared for my next career. In my new job, I will continue doing what I love most: Lead people to accomplish difficult missions in challenging environments. Avril and I hope to settle down after our next move for a long time, and give Laura and Tara some stability through their school years. We intend to be active in our local community, and share our time and talents with those less fortunate than ourselves. But most of all, we intend to love each other and be happy, just like we have done throughout our wonderful 15 years of marriage.
Let me finish now where I started: I love the United States Navy. But now it’s time to move on. Master Chief Sielkop, I am ready to be relieved.
Hat tip reader T via Rontini's Submarine BBS.