By Lt. Krisandra Hardy, USS Florida (SSGN 728) (B)

 

I never thought that, nearly five years after graduating from the United States Naval Academy, anything could make me feel like a Midshipman again. It turns out that rank and experience have very little to do with thwarting that feeling. When you are standing in a group of lieutenants, dazed and lost in the halls of the Pentagon wearing Service Dress Blues, a youthful foolishness quickly returns. Yet there we stood, amidst side glances and confusion, the Submarine Force Junior Officers of the Year (JOOY) for 2017.


The Junior Officer of the Year (JOOY) program is an incredibly rewarding recognition of junior officers in the Submarine Force who have demonstrated superior skills in leadership and management, operational planning, technical prowess, and overall seamanship. Each boat in the fleet nominates a junior officer for this award, and each squadron is tasked with picking one from among all of the boats in the squadron. Submarine tender candidates are also submitted and chosen by the ships’ commanding officers.

The tremendous distinction that accompanies this award is one that catches most of its winners by surprise. Submarine wardrooms are brimming with motivated, intelligent junior officers, but there was a distinct sense of humility that could be seen in all of the JOOY winners present. When congratulated, it was not uncommon to hear “I don’t know what I did differently. I was just doing my job.”

The visit to Washington D.C. provides JOOYs the opportunity to meet with senior officials to discuss current fleet challenges and possible solutions. Our trip began with us quietly introducing spouses and reuniting with friends we’d not seen since our nuclear training pipeline. Many of us were simply glad for the break from our respective boats.

Meetings with Navy Leaders
The first afternoon consisted of watching our group of naval officers frantically attempting to gather on the same subway car en route to the Pentagon. Later, these same officers were clumsily making their way through Pentagon security to gather in the tour waiting area (in stark contrast to the practiced efficiency of seasoned Pentagon visitors). The tour of the Pentagon, awash in epaulettes, ribbons, medals, and myriad uniforms, only whetted our appetites. Here, I offer advice to the ladies who attend this trip in the future: if you wear heels, make sure they are short heels.

Lt. Joseph Buonaccorso
Rochester, N.Y.
USS Texas (SSN 775)

Lt. Anthony Testino
Pequannock, N.J.
USS Springfield (SSN 761)

Lt. Adam Garfrerick
Florence, Ala.
USS Jimmy Carter (SSN 23)

Lt. Luke Talbot
St. Joseph, Miss.
USS Newport News (SSN 750)

Lt. James Halsell
Anderson, Ind.
USS Columbia (SSN 771)

Lt. Bryan Keck
Spearfish, S. D.
USS Pasadena (SSN 752)

Lt. Brent Shawcross
Fairfax, Va.
USS Annapolis (SSN 760)

Lt. Peter Pappalardo
Allentown, Pa.
USS Topeka (SSN 754)

Lt. Krisandra Hardy
Okinawa, Japan
USS Florida (SSGN 728) (B)

Lt. Martin Schroeder
Minneapolis, Minn.
USS Louisiana (SSBN 743) (B)

Lt. Katherine Castro
Hialeah, Fla.
USS Michigan (SSGN 727) (B)

Lt. Hans Nowak
Terre Haute, Ind.
USS Tennessee (SSBN 734) (G)

Ens. Jace Waller
Concord, N.C.
USS Emory S. Land (AS 39)

We came at last to the kickoff of our weeklong trip: a meeting with Vice Adm. James Foggo, Director, Navy Staff. Surrounded by the highly decorated walls of Adm. Foggo’s Pentagon office, we began to more fully appreciate the unique opportunities that were presented by this trip. The afternoon meetings with Adm. Foggo and Cmdr. Deichler (N133) allowed us a rare insight into the high-level decisions that eventually affect the lives of submarine crews. Cmdr. Deichler, who addressed the first-ever Junior Officer Symposium earlier in the year, informed us of the immediate changes it yielded and the long-term changes being considered. The reassurance that our recommendations and concerns were being actively addressed gave all of us a sense of ownership of our futures. Overall, that first afternoon offered us a unique perspective into the background of the plans, missions, and decisions that we had been executing daily with our crews. I hope our meeting also gave these leaders some added perspective into the implications of their daily decisions as well.

The following morning, we met with Rear Adm. William Merz, Director of Undersea Warfare Division (N97). The open discussion we had about our concerns affecting our skills and warfighting abilities was refreshing and enlightening. It was the first opportunity for us to share our unique experiences aboard our respective submarines, and I realized that I had never considered the many different styles of leadership, mission sets, and exercises that exist outside the sphere of my own squadron. The outcome of this discussion was surprising in an important way—it brought a new excitement to what we did, opening channels of discussion that we were all equally capable of contributing to and offering a certain significance to the roles we played individually.

Among the host of influential individuals we were invited to speak with were Adm. James Caldwell, Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program and Adm. John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations. These two prestigious gentlemen as well as Adm. Caldwell’s lovely wife, Kim, shared with us personal stories about their own failures and successes, philosophical insights on leadership, and the road ahead for the Submarine Force that we were paving. That future, as later events would emphasize, includes the Columbia-class submarine, the size of our force in the years to come, and the evolving threats we were only beginning to see in the world.

Mrs. Caldwell directly addressed our significant others, recognizing their particular challenges, and offered invaluable advice from her many years of experience. The recognition of our significant others was important. I certainly could not have made it through the past years without the support of my fiancé. They are not always in the spotlight, but they should be. The emotional stress they must overcome, the lives they continue to support at home while we are away, and the long hours and temperaments they must endure are the sacrifices we ask them to pay. They are the driving force behind the entire submarine community. Lt. Hans Nowak II, Squadron 20, said it best when he said of his civilian wife, Nicole Nowak: “The sacrifice Nicole has made overshadows anything I have done.”

Cutting-edge Navy contractor work
Near the end of our week, we took a step into the civilian aspects that influence our force. A long and rainy drive found us at the unassuming facility housing the famous Lockheed Martin “Area 51” in Manassas, Va. Meeting the people who develop the technology we use to execute missions and keep our nation safe was an incredible experience. We were even given sneak-peeks of future projects and current developments (which were, to be frank, very cool). Lt. Joe Buonaccorso, Squadron 1, commented, “Through this visit we gained a firsthand appreciation for our country’s defense contractors, who are tirelessly working to ensure our Navy maintains its tactical superiority for years to come.”

Here, we saw the physical evidence behind an emerging submarine doctrine: a call for a return to warfighting—its principles, its creativity, and its technological innovation. This theme would carry on to the Capitol, where we had the incredible opportunity to meet Representative Joe Courtney of Connecticut’s 2nd Congressional District. “Two Sub Joe,” as he is known, was the driving force behind Electric Boat’s increased Virginia-class submarine annual output.

If we had ended our trip there, it would have already been a tremendous experience. Despite the gray weather, we had all indulged in D.C.’s cheerful cherry blossom season, which was in full bloom throughout our stay. Many of us were determined to pack in as many sights as we could. Needless to say, D.C. alone provided an incredible experience for our JOOY group, and we were all rewarded with new friends, memorable meetings, and an excitement for our futures and the future of the Submarine Force.

The JOOY’s high point
But the week was not over yet. While “White House Visit” had always been the last item on our itinerary, the details of what the White House visit would actually entail had been (in true Submariner fashion) written in mud. Though we reminded ourselves not to get our hopes up, it’s difficult to simply ignore the possibility that you might come face to face with the President of the United States of America.

Standing in the Roosevelt Room, the White House staff informed us that the President was in an adjacent room signing an executive order on trade. Unfortunately his schedule was running just a little too tight to meet with us. We were, however, afforded the opportunity to meet Vice President Pence, and there was no loss of excitement in that honor. When he walked in, the excitement in the room was palpable. His smile was big and genuine. After welcoming our group, he immediately showed his Hoosier pride by calling out the Indiana natives in our group—Lt. Hans Nowak and his wife, Nicole. “It was an honor meeting Vice President Pence. He was extremely welcoming,” Lt. Nowak commented. In true millennial fashion, we took a group selfie that he tweeted instantly.

The Vice President then gestured to the door we had all been eyeing since we had walked in the room, the one leading to the Oval Office. He informed us that President Trump had made time to meet our group of submarine officers.

We could hear him before we could see him, the voice I’d heard on the television and radio countless times in the last year. With tempered expectancy we entered the room and there he was, the leader of the free world, my boss. As Lt. Buonaccorso recalls it, “Sitting behind the Resolute Desk, the President welcomed us in and showed us his genuine appreciation for our service and for the sacrifices that our spouses make. We are all grateful to Rear Adm. Kreite of the National Security Council for setting the visit up.” As we filed out of the office, the President congratulated us and shook hands with each of us. It’s not every day that you receive an “atta-boy” in the Submarine Force; it’s rarer still to receive that from the very top of your chain of command.

Unanticipated Benefits
That short week rekindled an excitement and love for the challenges I am able to face in this unique career. Being able to have discussions with other officers about our contributions on our own boats and hear the perspectives of the people who delegate the orders that we carry out was beneficial in a way I could not have imagined. “[It was] amazing…the extent to which the senior leaders we engaged with were interested in our opinions; soliciting feedback from our group as to what challenges we face as young leaders serving in today’s Submarine Force,” said Lt. James Halsell of Squadron 7. “The interactions during our trip left me excited about the path ahead for our force and our Navy as a whole.”

I hope that the submarine community will consider instituting frequent small-group gatherings of geographically diverse junior officers in more casual forums. I cannot quite capture the significance of being able to meet with other officers across the globe to simply talk about what makes us the same and what makes us different. Where our frustrations were similar, we discussed solutions to what could be force-wide issues. When our frustrations differed, I was able to reconsider what about my command was driving the difference and reflect on whether I could promote change. I would love for other officers to be able to share the same kind of rejuvenation and community-building offered by the JOOY trip.

None of us could have imagined the opportunities and memories afforded by winning JOOY. It’s not really an award that you seek to win. It’s not even an award that you singularly win. Lt. Nowak offered sentiments that echoed those from all in our group: “I would not be where I am without the Sailors I have been honored to lead. They are the foundation for all my accomplishments…my Sailors are amazing.” On behalf of our entire group of JOOYs, I sincerely thank all of the officials who met with us and restructured our perspective of this force. I also want to thank all of the amazing crews who work tirelessly and shape the impressive people who make up our community.