Fair Winds and Following Seas
On Friday November 1st, 2013 a small crowd gathered in Memorial Hall, located in the heart of Bancroft Hall at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. The crowd consisted of about one hundred of my closest friends and family, including my mother, sister, brother, as well as teammates who I deployed with to both Iraq and Afghanistan. A short, but warm ceremony was conducted, rich with traditions that paid tribute to our naval heritage. In the end , a long whistle blew as I departed the Navy, walking on the arm of my mother, officially retired from naval service.
It saddens me to leave the ranks of the Navy, which are formed by some of the most incredible people our country has to offer. I have learned from them what it means to be virtuous, and the true value of liberty. On the other hand, I have seen the world of opportunity that exists outside of the military, and I am excited to set sail into uncharted waters!
The following is an essay derived from the speech I gave during the retirement ceremony. As I gave the speech from memory, the words that follow are not the speech verbatim, however the sentiment and message are the same.
Memorial Hall is a small, but impressive room situated in the heart of the greater Bancroft Hall, affectionately referred to as “The Hall” by generations of midshipmen who live within it’s sturdy walls while studying at the US Naval Academy. Memorial Hall is about the size of a basketball court, with elegant marble floors, tall pristine white columns, and ornate wood work. Around the room are historic artifacts from two centuries of naval warfare, priceless paintings and displays depicting epic battles and stories of uncommon heroism.
Memorial Hall was thoughtfully designed, artfully crafted, and has been meticulously maintained for one very important purpose; that we should remember…
We are to remember the final commands of James Lawrence, who as he lay dying on the deck of the USS Chesapeake, bleeding to death from wounds sustained from fierce combat against the British blockade during the War of 1812, Lawrence shouted to his men with his last breath “Don’t give up the ship! Fight her until she sinks!”
Upon learning of his friends demise, Oliver Hazard Perry immortalized the words of Lawrence when he embroidered them onto his new battle flag, which he flew as he led our naval forces to eventually defeat the British blockade, proving not only our right to liberty, but also our ability to defend it as well.
At the turn of the 20th century, when Memorial Hall was being built, Perry’s flag was hung at the center of the room to inspire new generations of naval leaders.
One such midshipman was a man named Draper Kauffman, who despite his earnest and motivation was denied a commission in the Navy due to poor eyesight. Not giving up on his commitment to serve, Kauffman flew himself to Europe, and volunteered as an ambulance driver, shuttling dead and wounded French soldiers from the front lines during the early stages of the second World War. After a short period as a POW, held captive by the Germans, Kauffman found himself in London, working with the Royal navy on how to dispose of the many unexploded bombs that lettered the city after extensive raids conducted by the Luftwaffe. Recognizing Kauffman’s incredible dedication to service at this point, the US Navy offered him a commission in the reserves, where the vision requirements were less stringent. Kauffman accepted, and shipped out to Hawaii. In the aftermath of the infamous Pearl Harbor attacks, Kauffman became the first US serviceman to render safe an unexploded Japanese 500-lb bomb, preserving both the bomb and the fuze for future study. For his actions he was both lauded, earning the Navy Cross, and scorned by his chain of command. The Navy realized that had Kauffman not succeeded in the render safe, the US would have no ability to develop a plan on how to mitigate the threat posed by unexploded ordnance. Kauffman was shortly thereafter tasked with developing a Naval School for Explosive Ordnance Disposal. Kauffman also recognized the need for small teams of swimmers to be able to surreptitiously evaluate the planned sites for amphibious assaults, to ensure the safe disembarkation of soldiers and marines. Kauffman developed the Underwater Demolition Teams to fulfill this need, which would evolve into the modern day SEAL teams. Kauffman would continue to serve with distinction through the end of World War II, the Vietnam War, and into the beginning of the Cold War. He would finally retire in 1973.
In that same year, a midshipmen named Eric Olsen would graduate from the Naval Academy. Olsen was to follow in Kauffman’s frog shaped footsteps, and would attend training in Coronado, CA to become a Navy SEAL. Olson would witness first hand how the face of warfare would change, ushering in a decade of conflict marked by third-world deserts, malicious warlords, oppressive dictators, and religious fundamentalists. In 1993, Olsen would be sent to Somalia to support Operation Restore Hope. US Rangers, Delta Force, and SEALs were sent to Somalia to offer security to UN humanitarian efforts to supply food and medical aid to a battered population, plagued by drug-crazed warlords. During a relatively routine mission to apprehend militant henchmen, two US Blackhawk helicopters were shot down instigating a riot of thousands of angry fighters. What would follow would be some of the fiercest urban combat since the Vietnam War. Eighteen US lives would be lost, and many more injured. For his actions during the fierce fighting, Olsen would be awarded a Silver Star, and would return to the states to apply his lessons learned to shape our Special Operations doctrine over the next twenty years.
Under Olsen’s leadership of SOCOm, a decade long search would come to fruition when the 9/11 mastermind and Al Qaida head Usama Bin Laden was located and killed in Abbotabad, Pakistan.
On the same night of this historic raid, I crouched in a dugout nestled into the crest of a small mountain in southern Afghanistan. Staring intently at a pair of Taliban fighters, communicating to each other with small flashlights across a field of tall poppy plants. Seated on the other side of the dugout, with his short rifle expertly trained on the two flashing lights, was a SEAL named “Gunny.” As we monitored the situation below, Gunny and I had a deep conversation about how we had ended up there, the circuitous path to this desolate dugout, under threat of enemy fire and nefarious hidden explosives buried under the ground. We both reflected on the moments that we had decided that we were committed to serve, and moreover serve in combat.
I recalled sitting my backyard in Colorado Springs when I was eight years old, playing with G.I. Joes, and looking up at the sky, which was littered with C-130 cargo planes, F-15 jets, and occasionally an F-117 stealth fighter. At eight years old, I didn’t understand fully what the military was, but I knew that I wanted in…
I remember the first time I gazed up at Perry’s battle flag, and the words “Don’t give up the ship” were emblazoned in my memory. I remember my Uncle Chuck administering my Oath of Office as I was sworn into the class of 2006. I remember the elation of tossing my midshipman cap into the air as the Blue Angels screamed by overhead. I remember my Dive School class, my EOD school class, and my first duty station in the Low Country, Charleston, SC, as a newly minted “Kegbuster.” I remember Iraq, and I remember the death of my good friend Tyler, and the first time I truly understood the reality, gravity, and lethality of our task as EOD technicians. I remember the mazing platoon I served with in Afghanistan, and I remember being jerked back to life by my friend Adam. I remember highs and lows, but mostly I remember that each time I messed up or fell down, there was always someone there to stand up for me or help me stand when I couldn’t do it myself. I remember the amazing people who picked me up, dusted me off, and got me back into the fight, in a re-imagined way.
My grandfather served in the Navy during WWII. He made his living by tossing torpedoes out the back of a small aircraft, targeting Japanese ships. After serving in the Pacific, during such historic battles as Midway and others,, he returned home to share his experience and wisdom with new recruits. His luck would change when his aircraft crashed during a training mission, killing everyone aboard, save my grandfather and the pilot. My grandfather spent the following four years in the hospital recovering, eventually falling in love with his nurse. Though she despised him at first, he persisted, and she too fell in love. They were married until death parted them.
Stories like these characterize what has become known as the “Greatest Generation.” Recently, President Obama and others have come to refer to the OIF/OEF generation as the “New Greatest Generation.” I personally don’t believe either of these titles are accurate. I don’t believe that there is a singular greatest generation, I instead believe that greatness can be found in every generation. When you hear the stories of James Lawrence, Oliver Hazard Perry, Draper Kauffman, and Eric Olson, you begin to see that we have a rich history and tradition of honorable naval service. In every generation there are those who choose to pursue their happiness, as opposed to seek out entitlements. In each generation there are those who choose to study virtue, and build their character around the lessons they learn. In each generation, there are those who choose to commit themselves to community service, and in every generation there will be those who offer up their lives in defense of our way of life.
It was a privilege for me to study at an institution that champions leadership and virtue. It was a privilege to share a common purpose, and serve along side the greatest men and women our country has to offer. It was a privilege to wear our stars and stripes on my shoulder, and play a small role in a much larger tradition of greatness. It is a privilege that I am still alive to enjoy the liberty that so many have died for.
I do not enjoy any of these privileges lightly, and it is my pledge to you that I will live each day such that I earn the right to do so.
In closing I ask that:
Until our last night on shore,
Let us drink to the foam…
Until we meet once more,
Here’s wishing you a happy voyage home!
Time, tide and formation wait for no one.
I am now shoving off…