Tuesday, March 24, 2009

America's Heroes

I have previously served on ships named for great American Naval Officers, Bainbridge, Ingersoll, and Nimitz, and ships named for historic battles, Lake Erie and Port Royal. Of course, I currently have the pleasure to command a warship which bears the callsign of a great American warrior and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Marine Sergeant Freddy Gonzalez. I will always remember the day, I learned I was to command Gonzalez. I was working on the Joint Staff in a Pentagon office with officers from representing every military Service. As soon as I announced the name of my future ship, the Marine Corps Officer in our office immediately told me all about Freddy Gonzalez. He didn't have to look anything up on the internet. He just knew. I've always admired that about Marines.

I got an email the other day from that same Marine and thinking about his own personal knowledge of American heroes and Medal of Honor recipients made me think of an article which has been making it's way around the internet recently. I copied it below with an accompanying link (make sure you see the link - it will give chance to pause) for Gonzalez family and friends and any readers of our Fighting Freddy blog. I know I already have links to Freddy's Congressional Medal of Honor Citation on the blog but I added his own citation at the end. In concert with the excellent article below, when it comes to real American heroes, we should all pause to read their citations, over and over again. - Captain
Who Are America's Heroes? http://www.defenselink.mil/home/features/2009/0309_moh/presentation.html
By Donna Miles American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 13, 2009—The challenge issued by a flight attendant during a recent commercial air flight seemed innocuous enough: Name just one of the five Medal of Honor recipients from the current engagements in Afghanistan or Iraq, and get a free drink coupon. But the passengers’ response – more specifically, the inability of all but just one to respond – revealed how little the average American knows about its military heroes.

Bombarded by superhero lore almost from birth, many Americans grow to revere fictional heroes as well as sports and celebrity icons. But silence descended over the cabin of a flight bound from Jacksonville, Fla., to Baltimore when the conversation turned to those who had earned the nation’s highest honor for valor – even when a free cocktail hung in the balance. Dale Shelton, an Annapolis, Md., resident who served five years as a Navy intelligence specialist, was the only passenger to press the button over his seat to beckon the attendant. Shelton’s response: Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, the first Medal of Honor recipient in the global war on terror, and in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Smith received the highest military honor for valor posthumously on April 3, 2005, two years to the day after saving more than 100 soldiers in the battle for Baghdad’s airport. His young son and widow accepted the award on his behalf during a solemn White House ceremony. The flight attendant gave free drink coupons to Shelton, as well as his wife Jean and two other traveling companions. Then he returned to the crew area to announce over the intercom that only one person had correctly answered the challenge.

This time, the attendant offered a second challenge: name an American Idol winner. The cabin lit up like a pinball machine as 43 passengers scrambled to push their attendant call button. Passengers named various Idol winners. The attendant announced that he wasn’t going to award drink coupons for that answer, telling the passengers that "naming an Idol winner was not worth a free drink," Shelton recalled. "He concluded his announcement with the question: ‘What’s wrong with our country when out of 150 passengers, only one can name a Medal of Honor recipient, but 43 can name an American Idol winner?’"

Later during the flight, Shelton shared with the attendant his own frustration over "the current lack of appreciation of our military heroes." The attendant asked Shelton if he knew the names of the other four Medal of Honor receipts from the current military operations. Shelton said he was able to name three: Navy Lt. Michael Murphy, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Monsoor and Army Spc. Ross McGinnis. All were killed sacrificing themselves to protect their comrades during enemy attacks. Murphy, a Navy SEAL, died June 28, 2005, trying to save his team members during Operation Red Wing in Afghanistan. Monsoor, also a SEAL, died in Iraq Sept. 23, 2006, using his body to absorb a grenade blast that likely would have killed two nearby SEALs and several Iraqi soldiers. McGinnis died Dec. 4, 2006, after throwing himself on a hand grenade in Iraq to save four fellow soldiers when insurgents attacked their Humvee.

Shelton said he regretted that he had forgotten the name of Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham. Dunham died April 15, 2004, using his body to shield fellow Marines in Iraq from a hand grenade. The flight attendant didn’t hold Shelton’s memory lapse against him. "He gave me all the remaining drink coupons he had in his possession and shook my hand," he said.

Congressional Medal of Honor - Freddy Gonzalez
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as platoon commander, 3d Platoon, Company A. On January 31, 1968, during the initial phase of Operation Hue City, Sgt. Gonzalez' unit was formed as a reaction force and deployed to Hue to relieve the pressure on the beleaguered city. While moving by truck convoy along Route No. 1, near the village of Lang Van Lrong, the marines received a heavy volume of enemy fire. Sgt. Gonzalez aggressively maneuvered the marines in his platoon, and directed their fire until the area was cleared of snipers. Immediately after crossing a river south of Hue, the column was again hit by intense enemy fire. One of the marines on top of a tank was wounded and fell to the ground in an exposed position. With complete disregard for his safety, Sgt. Gonzalez ran through the fire-swept area to the assistance of his injured comrade. He lifted him up and though receiving fragmentation wounds during the rescue, he carried the wounded marine to a covered position for treatment. Due to the increased volume and accuracy of enemy fire from a fortified machine gun bunker on the side of the road, the company was temporarily halted. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Sgt. Gonzalez exposed himself to the enemy fire and moved his platoon along the east side of a bordering rice paddy to a dike directly across from the bunker. Though fully aware of the danger involved, he moved to the fire-swept road and destroyed the hostile position with hand grenades. Although seriously wounded again on February 3, he steadfastly refused medical treatment and continued to supervise his men and lead the attack. On February 4, the enemy had again pinned the company down, inflicting heavy casualties with automatic weapons and rocket fire. Sgt. Gonzalez, utilizing a number of light antitank assault weapons, fearlessly moved from position to position firing numerous rounds at the heavily fortified enemy emplacements. He successfully knocked out a rocket position and suppressed much of the enemy fire before falling mortally wounded. The heroism, courage, and dynamic leadership displayed by Sgt. Gonzalez reflected great credit upon himself and the Marine Corps, and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Resilency of U.S. Navy Sailors

Since February, GONZALEZ has been in a maintenance period called a selected restricted availability or SRA. Time in a naval shipyard is a demanding time for any ship. First and foremost, the ship is thrown from her normal routine into a period of intense, industrial maintenance. Almost nothing on the ship looks normal and because of the nature of the work we are doing, we can't even live or conduct non-repair type of work on the ship. We live, work, and eat on a barge moored alongside us. In many ways our entire, normal shipboard routine is challenged. At the same time though, we still carry on doing the business of Sailors which our sister ships continue do at the naval base or while deployed or underway in the local operating areas. We still have planning, maintenance, and schedule meetings. Sailors still take advancement exams, re-enlist, conduct training, run drills, and do PT. We are still assessed by other Navy organizations, have inspections, stand shipboard watches every day, and execute our everyday routine. Shipboard safety is also still very important, even more so than usual, and so we wear hard hats and safety goggles while we are onboard the ship during an SRA. One of the toughest things though is that because we are in an industrial, shipyard environment, our family and friends cannot visit us on the ship, and I miss that.

Through it all though, Sailors endure. They never miss a beat. They adjust to the changes, the challenges, and frustrations, particularly of not being able to live and work on the ship we call our home. Whether deployed away from families, working hard in port or in a shipyard, U.S. Navy Sailors always have been and always will be among the most resilient folks I have ever known, and I am fortunate to serve with the very best in the business.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Freddy Gonzalez Heritage - Marine Corps Style

No military Service understands or values their heritage better than the United States Marine Corps. A short story to back up that assertion...I am fortunate to have a retired Marine Corps Sergeant Major as a friend and neighbor. He is famous for saying, "I never walk by another person who's serving and not speak. Life is all about who you hang out with." And he lives by it. Not only does he know and take care of everyone in the neighborhood, he is also the kind of guy who can tell you how many Congressional Medal of Honor recipients are buried in the local cemetery. Last week, he told me the story of Army First Lieutenant Ruppert Sargent of Hampton, Virginia who, like Freddy Gonzalez, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. He told me this story because Lieutenant Sargent is buried in the Hampton National Cemetery near our homes and today, 15 March 2009, was the 42nd anniversary of the day he earned his Medal of Honor. Lieutenant Sargent's citation can be found at http://www.mishalov.com/Sargent.html.

So my neighbor obtains a donated wreath and invites to me to join him and some other members of the Yorktown Virginia Marine Corps League for an impromptu ceremony at the National Cemetery to commemorate the anniversary of Lieutenant Sargent's death. For me, it was simply an honor to be in the presence of so many outstanding Marine Corps veterans. But it gets even better. As part of the personal ceremony my neighbor organized, the Commandant of the Yorktown Chapter presented me with a special challenge coin and a picture of him holding up a painting of Freddy Gonzalez painted by famous Marine Corps painter, Col (ret) Charles Waterhouse. Not only did these Marines take time out on a rainy Sunday afternoon to honor an Army Medal of Honor recipient. They knew I am fortunate to command a great ship like GONZALEZ and found a way to make it special for me as well. My neighbor is right...never pass up the opportunity to talk to someone serving or who has served. You never know who you might get to hang out with. So, XO, if you are reading the blog, stand by to organize a tour for some great Americans! Go Navy and Semper Fi Marines!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Building Bridges

Yesterday was another first for me in command of the best crew in the Navy. Yesterday, on Friday the 6th of March, I administered a commissioning oath to one of my Sailors for the first time. Just after 10am in the morning, Fire Control Chief Petty Officer Brandon Bridges became Ensign Brandon Bridges. Indeed, it was a great day for GONZALEZ. The only downside, of course, is that my Chief Petty Officer's Mess loses an outstanding Chief and another wardroom on the waterfront will soon gain an outstanding new Officer - such is the path of transitioning a Chief from the Mess to the Wardroom.

As the spring weather finally returned to Hampton Roads, the day couldn't have started out any better for GONZALEZ as we also re-enlisted another outstanding GONZALEZ Sailor on the same morning. Not too bad for a March Friday - administering an Enlisted and Officer oath in the same day!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Navy History and Heritage - GONZALEZ Style

When the March issue of Proceedings magazine arrived this week, I was instantly drawn to an article in the "Nobody Asked Me But..." section entitled, "The Navy Is Giving History a Bad Name" by Lieutenant Colonel Brian Hanley, U.S. Air Force (retired). Unfortunately, over the last few years, this is not the first time a member of another armed Service has commented in Proceedings on the Navy missing the beat or the boat when it comes to history and heritage.

Anyone who has ever served with me knows I am a Navy history and heritage enthusiast. Oddly enough, I don't come from a Navy family, was born in the landlocked state of Arkansas, have a degree in Electrical Engineering not history, and earned my commission through Officer Candidate School not the Naval Academy. So where does my history and heritage enthusiasm come from? I credit, or blame depending on point of view, my two year service with the Royal Navy. Why mention this on the GONZALEZ blog? Well, as long as I have served in the Navy, there seems to have been a consistent cry that Navy history and heritage don't play the important role they should. Yes, even I voiced my opinion in the June 2006 issue of Proceedings. For all the ideas, changes and proposals which have been put into place over the years, I think a fundamental point has been missed - history and heritage begins on board ships, submarines, and squadrons. It can't be force fed to Sailors. It must be fun, and it must be a part of what Sailors at sea do. Ships and Sailors are involved in history and heritage events all the time, and there are a lot of easy ways for Sailors to be involved...so naturally I decided to post a few thoughts on Navy History and Heritage - GONZALEZ style:

Embrace the ship's namesake: Every ship has a great name. On board DDG 66, we bear the proud call sign of a great Marine Corps warrior and hero, Freddy Gonzalez. Every Sailor who qualifies Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist (ESWS) and every officer who qualifies Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) knows that to pass their qualification board they must be able to answer questions related to Freddy. At SWO boards, junior officers are also required to describe a naval battle and naval hero of their choice. I used to ask questions about specific battles or naval heroes, but I wanted my Junior Officers to learn on their own and read, so rather than have them memorize answers to questions about history that they know interest me, I leave it to them. All of my new Sailors also learn about Freddy Gonzalez during command indoctrination.

Seek out a Singular Moment To Make History (big or small): While on deployment last summer, we arranged a PASSEX with USS HUE CITY (CG 66). Whether by accident or by design, both GONZALEZ and HUE CITY have the same hull number, and Freddy Gonzalez was the only Marine at the Battle of Hue City to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. As far I know, no one had previously taken a photo of GONZALEZ and HUE CITY sailing together, and our PASSEX was a fortuitous passing on a Sunday afternoon in May 2008. The PASSEX occurred while both ships were deployed and was simply a matter of luck. GONZALEZ was heading to the Eastern Mediterranean for a mission while HUE CITY was heading west across the Med.

Share a Heritage Moment With Family: Given that I am fortunate to command a warship named for a Vietnam War hero, before I took command, I took my children to Washington DC to the Vietnam War Memorial. While there I had them find Freddy’s name on the wall, create a pencil impression and then they helped me create a shadowbox which is displayed in my stateroom on the ship.

Maintain a Relationship With the Ship's Sponsor: Next to my relationship with my officers and crew, my personal relationship with my ship’s sponsor, Mrs. Dolia Gonzalez, is the best part of commanding GONZALEZ. I wrote Mrs. Gonzalez my first week in command, and she plays an important role in many parts of all of our lives on board the ship. I write her often, we speak on the phone, and she has visited the ship once during my command tour. The highlight of my relationship with Mrs. Gonzalez came when we helped her celebrate her 79th birthday on the day of our return from deployment last year. Mrs. Gonzalez was there to greet us on the pier, and more than 200 of her Sailors sang Happy Birthday in their white uniforms from the foc'sle after we moored.

Involvement with the USNA: While I am not a USNA Graduate, the USNA is a cornerstone of officer training and tradition for wFont sizeardrooms. We are fortunate to have a hull number which allows us to have a very special relationship with the USNA Class of 66. Each year the President of the Class of 66 presents a very special leadership award to one junior officer and one petty officer selected by the command. The award is great, but the interaction with the Class of 66 is the best part.

Commemorate the Battle of Midway: Given the opinions I have offered about ships commemorating the Battle of Midway, naturally, Gonzalez did so last year and will do so again this year. Last year's commemoration was particularly special because it was the 66th Anniversary of Midway, matching our hull number. In addition to hosting a special wardroom dinner at sea and taking vintage WWII photos, we also held a swim call in honor of Ensign George Gay, Jr., who was shot down during VT-8’s torpedo run during the battle. Ensign Gay then watched the battle from the Pacific until he was rescued. As far as we know, our event was truly the Inaugural George Gay, Jr. Swim Call.

Involve the Chiefs: Nothing is done well without the involvement and support of the Chief Petty Officer’s Mess. All of the Navy’s new uniforms notwithstanding, a great way to involve the Chiefs in heritage and history was my Command Master's direction to have GONZALEZ Chiefs put on their old school khaki for a day on the anniversary of the Chief's Birthday. We happened to be making a port call in Haifa, Israel with our NATO Task Force last year for the Chief's Birthday so it was a great way to celebrate with our NATO shipmates.

Don't Just Take the Day Off on Holidays: Holidays are more than simply days off or times for safety stand downs. In addition to taking a day off and talking about safety, we used these holidays to specifically remember those who have gone before us. For instance, on both Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, after opening remarks we played Taps. On Memorial Day we also read aloud Freddy Gonzalez’ Congressional Medal of Honor citation.

Outreach Events: In April of this year, a group of GONZALEZ Sailors will participate in the Blessing of the Fleets Ceremony in Washington D.C. In addition to the opportunity to interact with Sea Cadets and Veterans, it's an easy way for my Sailors to reach out to the community as well.

No organization grades us or assesses us on how well we honor our heritage, but I think we are giving history a pretty good name. -CO