Interview by John Riley
Please tell us a little bit about your background and why you focused your naval career on submarines?
I’m a third-generation naval officer, and I’m proud to continue my family’s service. My grandfather flew airships during World War II and my dad flew P-3s during the Cold War. I grew-up planning to join the navy, and I entered the United States Naval Academy after high school expecting to become a naval aviator like my dad and my grandfather.
Fortunately, all midshipmen at the Naval Academy are required to spend several weeks each summer serving in the fleet on what they call “summer cruises”. These cruises are opportunities to spend time with each of the warfare communities in the navy and to learn about them: surface ships, marines, aviation squadrons, and submarines. These summer cruises taught me that I did not actually like flying airplanes nearly as much as I thought I would. Instead, I learned that I was attracted to the submarine community.
I graduated from the Naval Academy in 1998, and over the last 22 years I’m privileged to have served on six submarines and with over 1000 submarine Sailors. I have enjoyed and personally benefited from the opportunity to work alongside these highly capable Sailors, and I hope I have been able to add some value to their lives as well.
What sets the submariner apart from others in the Navy?
One of my Naval Academy summer cruises was on a Sturgeon-class submarine. I remember sitting in the wardroom one day watching a meeting - this would have been one of my first couple of days onboard. The behavior that I observed during the meeting was different from anything I had seen before, and it illustrated for me how the submarine community was unique.
As I recall the situation, an important piece of equipment had broken and about a dozen of the crew’s officer and enlisted submariners had assembled in the wardroom to decide what to do about it. During the meeting one of the Sailors spoke-up with a plan. Everyone listened attentively, and when he finished speaking, they discussed his idea and asked some pointed questions. After some deliberation the Commanding Officer agreed with the plan, and everyone left the wardroom to go execute it. At the end of the meeting I was surprised to see that the Sailor who spoke-up was a Petty Officer Third Class - a junior enlisted Sailor. I was impressed that the others in the wardroom didn’t seem to care that he was a junior Sailor; they just cared about his idea, whether it was a good idea, and how they could all work together to execute it. I was also impressed by the junior Sailor’s confidence and competence, and his willingness to present his idea to the Commanding Officer.
During my remaining time onboard I observed more and more examples of this behavior, all across the submarine. I saw that submariners were smart, competent Sailors who valued independent and critical thinking, problem solving, and results; I saw that their personal interactions were honest and direct, they were appreciative of each other’s ideas and contributions, and while they were respectful of rank and position they were not blinded by it. Overall, I saw that their collective focus - from the most junior Sailor to the Commanding Officer - was simply on working together to safely and effectively operate their submarine and keep it at sea.
I had certainly observed different combinations of these behaviors on my other summer cruises; however, I had never seen all of them together in one place, across all ranks, even down to the most junior Sailor. I recognized that this collective behavior, and the culture that encouraged it, was unique to the submarine community. I enjoyed being a part of it for the few weeks I was onboard, and it convinced me that I wanted to become a submariner.
When did you learn you would be the first commander of the USS Delaware?
I received orders to the Delaware in June 2015. I began the Commanding Officer training pipeline that same month and reported for duty in February 2016.
What was the most challenging aspect of preparing to go to sea for the first time?
Taking a submarine to sea is always challenging, whether it’s the first time or the hundredth time. A submarine, on its own, does not want to go to sea. It just wants to sit at the pier, and when you do take it to sea it is usually not very cooperative. The only thing that really keeps a submarine in line is the Sailors, who exert a massive amount of energy into it and work together to bend the submarine to their common will. Getting a submarine to sea, and keeping it at sea, requires a great deal of collective willpower on the part of the crew.
It is extremely rewarding to do this well - it is rewarding to see a submarine respond to the crew’s energy and willpower, and for the crew to successfully operate in an environment where human beings are not supposed to be able to survive. The feeling of accomplishment that accompanies this is what makes a lot of submariners keep going to sea together.
So an added challenge for a new crew is that they have never experienced the feeling of working together to take their own submarine to sea, or the collective effort required to do it well. It’s hard to simulate this effectively, although we tried very hard by having our Sailors walk-through their respective portions of the underway process, practice the different evolutions we would be performing at sea, and things like that.
How long did you command the submarine and what were your special responsibilities during your tour of duty?
Commander Matthew Horton relieved me as Commanding Officer in November 2019, so my tour was 45 months long - almost four years.
The first Commanding Officer of a new submarine has the unique responsibility to establish the initial command culture on their ship - the collective attitude, behaviors, and overall approach toward submarining. Sailors, like all human beings, learn most of what they know through osmosis - they learn by simply being part of a group and conforming their behavior and attitudes to what they observe around them.
Because of this, the culture of a command transcends any single individual - it drives the positive or negative behavior of every Sailor onboard, and it remains largely intact well after those who originally established that culture have left the command. It takes years and years to correct a negative culture, and until corrected it will ruin entire crews of Sailors. So, I think the first Commanding Officer has a special and unique responsibility to establish a positive command culture.
Can you tell us a little about the roles and responsibilities of the crew and how each prepared for the "sea trial."
The “sea trial” is actually three sequential at-sea periods, ranging in length from a couple of days to about a week. The goal is to fully test the submarine, and every system onboard, to its operational limit.
As I mentioned previously, the crew’s job is to work together to exert their collective energy into the submarine - to bend it to their will and make the submarine conform to the underway plan (or in this case, the three underway plans). To be successful, every Sailor onboard must be able to perform the various individual and team skills that are required for them to do their jobs, and they need to understand how each of their specific jobs contribute to the overall plan. Our goal leading up to sea trials was to simulate the entire underway sequence as best we could and give each of our Sailors as many opportunities as possible learn and practice their individual and team skills.
This was somewhat challenging, because at the same time we also needed to support the final construction and testing sequence for our submarine, and make sure it was ready to go to sea as well. We worked hard with the construction team to make sure we balanced our time effectively, and the basic concept was to walk-through each of the individual and team evolutions as many times as possible so that our Sailors could execute the plan almost without thinking about it. We knew that we needed to build a great deal of resiliency, so that once we were underway, we would be able to focus our attention on the unexpected curveballs that we would likely have to deal with. Our Sailors did a great job taking full advantage of the available training opportunities, and my role was just to protect our time and help communicate the different underway scenarios. Overall, our preparations were extremely successful, and we executed the sea trials sequence very well. I’m proud of our crew’s efforts.
How does the "Virginia class nuclear attack submarine" differ from other submarines in the fleet?
The Virginia-class submarine is the most technologically-advanced submarine in the world. The open source literature will tell you that the Virginia-class incorporates the latest in stealth, intelligence gathering and weapons system technology.
From a personal perspective, all of my previous submarine tours were on Los Angeles-class attack submarines and Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. My recent tour on Delaware was the first time I had ever served on a Virginia-class submarine, and overall, I was extremely impressed. For example, the layout and integration of the control room provides a level of situational awareness that I did not have on any of my previous submarines. I think Delaware is an extraordinarily capable undersea platform.
Tell us a little about your experience becoming familiar with Delaware and state leaders?
Our first experience with anyone from Delaware was our keel laying ceremony in April 2016, shortly after our first group of Sailors reported for duty. The keel laying is the first of four traditional milestones in the life of a ship (along with christening, commissioning, and decommissioning) and it ceremonially marks the beginning of the new construction process. Dr. Jill Biden, who is Delaware’s Sponsor, and United States Senator Tom Carper attended the keel laying ceremony and basically introduced us to Delaware - through their speeches and their personal interactions with our crew. Dr. Biden (along with her grandson, Hunter) and Senator Carper stayed at the event long after it was finished and talked to every single one of our Sailors and their families.
We were very appreciative of the time that they invested in our crew, and they clearly indicated that it was important to build a positive connection between our Sailors and the State of Delaware. In the months following the keel laying our Sailors visited Dover Downs for a Dover 400 NASCAR race, the University of Delaware for a football game, the Elizabeth Murphy School in Dover, the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, the Kalmar Nyckel museum in Wilmington, the Delaware State Archives in Dover, and the Delaware State Capital where our crew was specifically recognized by Delaware House Concurrent Resolution #16 of the 150th General Assembly.
During these visits we were very privileged to meet state leaders, leaders in business and education, and private citizens. Every one of our interactions reinforced our experience from keel laying - that it was clearly very important to everyone in the State of Delaware that our Sailors feel connected to their namesake, and proud of their service on a vessel named after the First State. As someone who is not from Delaware, I can tell you that my experiences over the past few years have made me wish that I was. Our Sailors have certainly benefited from our positive relationship, and on behalf of our future Sailors, I certainly hope it continues for the life of the submarine.
Please tell us about your current position in the Navy . Do you still work in submarines?
I currently work in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment. This is a “joint” position, which means that I represent the submarine force and the navy to those outside of my service and community. Following this tour, I expect to return to a position within the submarine community.