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Good morning, admirals, generals, distinguished guests, family, friends, and shipmates ... welcome!
Again, we all appreciate the time that you’re taking – and in some cases traveling from around the world – to be here this morning to recognize and support two phenomenal naval officers and their families.
Before I begin, I’d like to pick up where chief left off and want to recognize that we are, by design, holding this ceremony here in the Hall of Heroes. While you’re here during your visit, we hope you’ll take a few moments in quiet reflection to think about the 3,500 men – and one woman – who received our Nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor.
These heroes in this hall exemplify the best of what it means to be a leader, and this morning, we acknowledge the exemplary action, the unwavering devotion, and extraordinary heroism they displayed in service to our Country.
Among the 3,500 names on the wall in the corner to my left is the name of a person whose honor, courage, and commitment remain shining examples for our Navy, Vice Adm. James Bond Stockdale.
When you read Adm. Stockdale’s Medal of Honor citation, it describes his fearlessness “in risking his life above and beyond the call of duty” while he was the senior naval officer in the POW camps of North Vietnam from 1965 to 1973. The award points to his indomitable spirit, his heroic actions, and his valiant leadership as he gave his fellow prisoners strength, courage, and hope.
It’s in his honor that our Navy presents the Stockdale Leadership Award. And the award represents a unique honor for those in command because it is peer-driven. Only those unrestricted line officers who themselves are eligible for the award are allowed to nominate other commanding officers for consideration. They are asked to recognize from amongst their friends and colleagues an individual who has inspired them both personally and professionally. So not only do the awardees have to be superb commanding officers for their own unit, they must be held in the highest regard by their fellow [commanding officers] from other units as well. And as everyone knows, no CO would ever say that their unit is not the best unit.
Today, it is my distinct honor to recognize the leadership and achievements of this year’s awardees: Cmdr. “Jake” Keefe and Capt. Adam Thomas.
Jake is our winner from the Pacific Fleet. He is joined this morning by his wife Kaitlyn, his parents Dan and Sally, his brothers Mike and Andrew, and his sister Margy. Jake and Kaitlyn are also the proud parents of three young, energetic, boys, Thayer, Owen, and Duncan. Thayer and Owen are with the babysitter this morning and Duncan is [here] well-behaved.
Jake earned this award for his leadership while in command of EOD Mobile Unit FIVE, a command of about 240 permanently stationed and deployed [personnel] in Guam.
When Jake was presented with the opportunity to command the unit he was told about the challenges they were facing: the triad – that is, the leadership, the CO, XO, and command master chief – was struggling, standards were slipping, and COVID was taking its toll on both the Sailors and their families.
The more Jake understood what he was walking into, the more he wanted the job. Where some only saw obstacles, Jake saw opportunity – the opportunity to lead.
As he arrived, Jake knew that, traditionally, COs provide a command mission, a vision, and a statement of intent.
Instead, he gave his team just five words: “Do Right, Fear No One.” Jake learned this philosophy years before from Rear Adm. (Ret.) Frank Morneau – a good friend and a mentor to many of us.
And as Jake sat down with his [junior officers] for the first time, he gave them a deck of cards. “At this command you have some of the best opportunities in the world,” he explained. “You’ve been dealt a great hand. Now, how you play it … is up to you.”
So, from day one, Jake set high standards for behavior and performance. He empowered the chief’s mess and his wardroom, giving them ownership and holding them accountable. And he developed a culture of readiness, inclusion, and family that significantly improved morale.
Here’s what happened as a result: the command pioneered unmanned underwater vehicle contributions to the subsea and seabed warfare areas. They executed the first ever off-island deployment of the headquarters to exercise operational plans in a high-end conflict. They deployed in support of efforts to locate the sunken Indonesian navy submarine off the coast of Bali – I would just tell you that my counterpart in Indonesia personally thanked me for your efforts. And when one of our F-35s suffered a crash on the [USS] Carl Vinson and sank into the South China Sea, it was Jake’s team that got the call to help recover that aircraft … ensuring that its advanced technology remained out of adversary hands.
CDR James Higgins, the CO of a sister command, EOD Mobile Unit ELEVEN submitted Jake’s nomination letter for the Stockdale award, and in it, he described how Jake raised the bar for his peers across all metrics of command. Jake instilled a strong moral ethos, military discipline, and a warrior spirit with his team—all qualities that certainly reflect the leadership of Admiral Stockdale.
So Jake, congratulations, you are most deserving of this award.
Now, I would like to also recognize the winner from the Atlantic Fleet, Capt. Adam Thomas. Adam is joined this morning by his wife Christy and their three children: Catherine, Lucy, and Lincoln.
Adam earned the award for his leadership while serving as Commanding Officer of the GOLD crew on USS Alaska, one of our proud ballistic missile submarines. These submarines perform one of our Navy’s – and our nation’s – most important missions: strategic nuclear deterrence.
The Ohio-class submarines that perform this mission were originally built to last for 30 years, built in the 1990s, the Navy determined that we would need to extend their service life to 42 years.
This requires a 12-14 month extended overhaul period about every 10 years for maintenance and modernization.
Adam’s time in command coincided with one of these extended refits, which meant that he and his crew had to oversee a period during which much of the Alaska’s systems and equipment were torn out and replaced. Such periods are a challenging time for the crew, who face difficult working hours, and difficult working conditions – and this was especially true for Adam’s team during COVID.
I would just say – and I say this every time I visit ships in maintenance – it is probably the most difficult leadership period that a CO and a crew will ever have. It’s more difficult than deployment. Give any Sailor the choice, “want to deploy or do you want to be in a shipyard,” and it’s not even a half-a-cup of coffee discussion. Being in a shipyard is tough. Being in a shipyard with a submarine that’s been split in half after 35 years is even more difficult.
During such a maintenance period, the demands are high, especially for our SSBNs. And in an interview from this time, Adam described the pressure of getting everything exactly right – because in nuclear power there are no shortcuts – down to the smallest details and parts – in order to get the sub ready to go back out, and back out on time.
So how did Adam get the job done? He established a culture where everyone was treated with dignity and respect. He remained positive – in a situation that doesn’t always have you wake up on the right side of the bed – and ensured that his Sailors bought into the mission. He consistently spread upbeat messages like “you are serving on the most powerful warship ever created.” He always looked out for the best interests of his team and their families. And he consistently embodied excellence as a commanding officer, as a dad, and as a person.
As Capt. Bill Dull, who commanded Alaska’s BLUE crew put it, “with Adam, there is no say-do mismatch.”
Now, the real test for a submarine coming out of a long maintenance period is how the boat and her crew perform on their first deployment, immediately following such a long, non-operational period in the shipyard.
So, Adam and his team admirably rose to the challenge, and exceed expectations. In the first year back in service, Alaska conducted the first transit to the Mediterranean Sea and first port visit to Gibraltar in over two decades. They earned Submarine Squadron 20’s Battle “E” for attaining the highest overall readiness for their wartime mission. And they also earned the U.S. Strategic Command’s “Omaha Trophy” as the top ballistic missile submarine in the Navy. Not too bad, Adam.
For his accomplishments while in command, for his mentorship of his fellow COs on the waterfront, and for his “many contributions to improve the Ballistic Missile Submarine Fleet,” Adam was nominated for the Stockdale Award by the other COs of Squadron 20.
Just as a side note – and I just showed this to Adam in my office a few minutes ago – Adam’s nomination letter was hand-signed by eight other commanding officers from Submarine Squadron 20 … this a testament to their support for Adam and to the impact he’s made on all of them.
Adam, you embody many of Adm. Stockdale’s characteristics and leadership traits. Congratulations to you and your family on earning this award.
Now Adam and Jake, we know – and you’ll be the first to admit – that you didn’t make it to this stage by yourselves. And as we think about Adm. Stockdale’s legacy, his journey is only half the story. The other half is the strength of his phenomenal wife, Sybil.
During her husband’s seven-year internment in North Vietnam, Sybil set the example of unfaltering support. Our admiration for the Stockdales emanates from their combined legacy of love and complete devotion to their country, to their shipmates and friends, and to each other.
Together, they co-wrote a book titled In Love and War, which details their odyssey of separation and sacrifice – and we’re going to present that to today’s winners with a copy of this book.
Similarly, the officers we celebrate today would not be here without their families, who share that same commitment. Our Navy is a family, and we serve as families. So this morning, to the Keefe and Thomas families, we recognize your love and your support, without which Adam and Jake would not be here today.
Finally, let me close with some words of wisdom from Adm. Stockdale. Leaders, he wrote, will face two tests: “One of their tests will be the ideals they inspire in their followers. And the other will be the test of their own fortitude and behavior.” Therefore, what we need are “transforming leaders,” said Stockdale, “who can implant high-minded needs in place of self-interested wants in the hearts of their people.” Certainly Adm. Stockdale set the example for such transformational leadership, and today’s winners have now passed both these tests. I am so confident they will continue inspire the next generation of naval warriors.
In closing I’ll say this: there’s a new movie that’s coming out next week. And it’s a movie about two naval aviators – one black and one white – it’s called, Devotion. And the period is the Korean War. And it’s a story of their love and their respect for each other. And when the black pilot, on a mission north of enemy lines in support of Marines on the ground at Chosin Reservoir was providing air-to-ground support fire, he was shot out of the sky – he crash-landed in the mountains of North Korea.
Lt. j.g. Tom Hudner – the white officer – then crash-landed his plane in the vicinity of Jesse Brown to rescue him. Because when he flew over he didn’t see Brown moving – he could see the top of his head – so he crash-landed.
And so when I think about that story, I think about these two, and, for me at least, one of the most important – probably the most important – leadership trait is courage. You can talk about character, you can talk about other things – for me, I would expect that they are men of character, I would expect that they know their craft, and are skilled submariners and skilled exposed ordnance demolition officers, I would expect that – and I would expect them to be of the highest character.
But communicating fearlessly up your chain of command, being honest with the Sailors that work for you, the Marines that work for you, and being willing to accept their feedback – while at the same time having the guts to make decisions by yourself in difficult situations – because at the end you’re the one responsible – you have to have the courage. And you have to be able to separate what’s important, from what’s urgent. And there’s a lot of people who put urgent demands on you, that might not necessarily in the long-term be important.
Only the commanding officer can separate those two and make those decisions. These two did that.
And so I just think about that movie. I think about Tom Hudner crash-landing his plane – doing all the wrong things, for the right reason. His commanding officer and his wingman said, “don’t do it,” but he did it.
And, ultimately, he couldn’t save Brown. They tried to get him out of the aircraft with an axe but he couldn’t do it. And he himself, Hudner, was rescued, but it’s quite a story and I go back to it – and it just kind of underscores the importance of courage, and the decisions you have to make – and be internally and externally consistent as you not only make those decisions, but talk about them.
Adm. Mike Gilday
17 November 2022
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