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Focus on Service

Howard Powered

Sailors live up to ship's namesake

In 1967, Staff Sgt. Jimmie Howard was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for the courage he displayed on the night of June 15, 1966.

With a platoon of 15 Marines and two Navy hospital corpsmen, Howard fought off an estimated battalion sized group of Viet Cong soldiers deep in the heart of enemy territory in North Vietnam. While perched on top of Hill 488, Howard conducted his men in a symphony of gunfire and grenades against the attacking Viet Cong. Setting his men up in a tight parameter around the top of the hill, he proceeded to make his way around the circle over and over, instructing each man on where and when to fire on the attackers. After several hours of fighting, the North Vietnamese retreated, and began to regroup for another charge up the hill. Howard had lost two men, and his platoon was very quickly running out of ammo.

As the North Vietnamese began their second attack, Howard instructed his men to throw rocks at them. Thinking the rocks were grenades, the North Vietnamese quickly jumped out from under their cover. Once in clear sight, Howard's men fired on them. During the second attack, Howard was shot in the back. Unable to move his legs, he continued to direct his men from a single spot on top of Hill 488, while calling in air attacks with unbelievable accuracy.

The battle on Hill 488 cost Howard the lives of seven of his men and injuries to all but one of the rest of them. But it also made a bold and resonating statement to the North Vietnamese - American Marines and Sailors could literally laugh in the face of death and were willing to fight by any means possible to remain victorious and die in the name of freedom.

Today, USS Howard (DDG 83), commissioned in 2001, is the 33rd Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer in the U.S. Navy. The crew is committed daily to living up to the legacy of her namesake and embodying the same qualities Howard once did on the battle field.

Fast, reliable, and always ready for a fight, Howard is known by many on the San Diego waterfront as the ship the fleet turns to when it needs something done. Like the Medal of Honor recipient, Howard is powered by the courage, selfless leadership, skill and camaraderie among the crew who operates her.

This is the story of the crew who keeps Howard powered.

Keeping the Lights On
Chief Petty Officer Blu Mendoza is about five and half feet tall, but his presence is as energizing as the electricity he works with aboard Howard. As part of the electrical division of engineering department, he is responsible for the training, welfare and sailorization of seven Sailors. It's not a job Mendoza takes lightly.

"If it weren't for the great leadership I've experienced, I probably wouldn't still be in the Navy," Mendoza said while talking about former chiefs and leading petty officers he's had during his 17 years in the Navy. "I have to be that person for my guys. I have to be the mentor, the parent, and the sibling, and I have to still make sure they know what they're doing and that they get it done. I also have to be concerned with what my Sailors are doing in their personal lives, and I have to be there to help them if they need it."

Training and mentorship is a vital piece to Mendoza's job; it's how he starts every day aboard. Whether reading the plan of the day to his division, devising and distributing the work load or holding daily trainings, he is actively involved in helping his Sailors find out what they are supposed to be doing and where and when those tasks need to be done.

"The engineering department is what keeps Howard powered," Mendoza said with a laugh. "I mean, we literally keep the ship running. What roles don't we play? What if there was no heat on the ship? No air conditioning? Nothing to cool down all of the computer and weapons consoles, or heat the food and water? Without us, there is nothing."

Mendoza might sound a little bit cocky, but maybe that's because engineering could be seen as the heartbeat of the ship, and his Sailors are the heart.

"I know he cares about us," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Marilyn Ortiz, one of Mendoza's Sailors. "He's always bragging about our division, or trying to set us up for success. Whether it's writing Sailor of the Quarter or Sailor of the Year packages, pushing us to get qualified or prepping us for boards - he does it all."

Ortiz described Mendoza as someone who is highly active in the command, both on a departmental level, and a ship-wide level. He's a member of the ship's Damage Control Training Team, the Moral, Welfare, and Recreation committee, and is often times seen troubleshooting equipment or trying to fix something new.

"He's always switching roles to set an example for us," Ortiz said. "Other people might reach a standard and stay there. He reaches standards and then sets new ones, both for himself and for us. He's always trying to raise the bar."

For Mendoza, pushing himself and his Sailors is simply what being attached to Howard is all about.

I feel a real sense of pride for serving on this ship." - Chief Blu Mendoza

"This isn't our job - it's our lifestyle," he said. "This isn't something you can just come off the street and do. On Howard, we have pride in our culture and in our lifestyle."
Two photo collage of USS Howard and portrait of Chief Blu Mendoza.

Charting the Course
Intense. Quick. To the point.

Those are words Lt. Mike Clarke likes to use to describe both the crew and the mission stance of Howard. They're also words that could be used to describe Clarke.

A graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy, in King's Point, New York, Clarke has been driving ships since he was 18 years old. It's fitting, then, that he is the navigator aboard Howard. In that role, he is the captain's right-hand-man in regard to keeping the ship afloat and on schedule. A ship's navigator is the one person on the ship who has the knowledge, and the ability, to tell the commanding officer when to turn the ship, and where and how to do so.

Clarke's also been on board longer than almost all of the current crew and speaks with fondness about the growth and development he's seen in them since he first stepped foot on the brow nearly four years ago.

"Something happened since I've been here - I've seen his crew develop to be one of the most reliable in the fleet. Any task we've been given, we've knocked out of the park," he said. "I think we've paved the road on intelligence and operational experience for the fleet."

Clarke compared the personality of the ship to that of its namesake's unit, the Marine Corps 1st Reconnaissance Battalion: swift, silent and always ready for any mission, at anytime.

We're fast and we are aggressive," - Lt. Mike Clarke

"We're people who can be relaxed and easy going, but as soon as we get a task, we can flip the switch and go out and get the job done," he said.

He also went on to explain that, though the ship is confident and capable, the crew is also humble.

"There is a big difference between being cocky and being confident - we are reliable, we have integrity, and we have the drive of people who don't settle for mediocrity, but we show that through our deeds, not our words," Clarke explained.

According to Clarke, a lot of the accomplishments and work ethic of the ship can be credited to the commanding officer, Cmdr. Amy McInnis.

"I think she instills values in her crew," he said. "This crew wants to work for her, because she encourages personal and professional growth on every level. She'll bend over backwards to take care of her people, and I think they see that and want to work up to her expectations."

Clarke sees an intense sense of pride and work ethic in both the chain of command and the ship's crew. The to-the-point, always-mission-ready attitude is a common theme throughout every passageway, and among every rank aboard. Those are some of the same qualities that Howard, who retired as a 1st Sgt., tried to instill in his own men. Those are qualities that make a hero.

Clarke knows that's no small comparison to make.

Honoring those who've already served or who have paid the ultimate sacrifice is a fundamental tradition for any Sailor. For the Howard crew, it's a bit more personal.

Every time the ship pulls out of port, she passes Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, where Howard is buried.

"When we are abeam of his grave, we call attention to starboard," Clarke explained. "All hands who are on deck stop what they are doing and render honors to 1st Sgt. Howard. It's a unique tradition and one that I'm proud to be a part of. It's like having a grandfather who you never knew, but you want to make extremely proud. We want to live up to his name."
Three photo collage of USS Howard at sea, Sailors navigating Howard, and Lt. Mike Clarke plotting on a chart.

Defending until the End
Just as every rank in the Navy serves a very specific function, so too does every classification of warship. Aircraft carriers launch and recover the aircraft that often provide ground forces with support, cruisers provide the gun power for attacks on enemies and destroyers provide the self-defense needed to protect an entire strike group. The ship is meant to destroy any weapon that poses an immediate threat to the safety of the strike group. Like the men on Hill 488, the sole purpose of the destroyer is to ensure that a position is held and that the enemy's attacks are unsuccessful.

Because of these specific self-defense mission requirements, destroyers are fitted with a different weapons system than aircraft carriers. Howard is an aegis-class destroyer - it uses the AEGIS system of weaponry to destruct and disarm incoming, imminent threats. Once the system detects a threat, the information is processed to determine which self-defense weapon should be used to neutralize said threat. From there, the system launches the weapon, evaluates the level of success, and if necessary, repeats the process. This all happens in a matter of seconds, with many moving parts, and across many different systems.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Aron Casper is Howard's mastermind behind making sure all of those systems are working and are successfully communicating with each other.

Casper joined the Navy seven years ago and came to Howard for his first command.

"Honestly, I lacked direction," he said, of enlisting. "I was 21, had dropped out of college, and knew I needed to do something productive with my life. I thought I would do well with the structure of the military."

Casper went off to boot camp knowing he would be working in the Advanced Electronic Computer Field (AECF).

Casper described his job as being the "middle-man" in a weapons firing situation. Though he doesn't fire any weapons, he has to ensure all of the major weapons systems on the ship can fire when they are supposed to. Like Staff Sgt. Howard on Hill 488, Casper and his team are the maestros to the ship's weapons orchestra.

"I really like my job," he said. "Because many of the systems on this ship are either older, or have been pieced together over time, there is a lot of work to be done to keep them working smoothly."

For Casper, keeping the weapons systems up to date is a personal job.

"I take ownership of this equipment. The way it works is a reflection of me and the way I work." - PO2 Aron Casper

His job, he knows, is also vital to the ship's success and survival.

"Everyone can say their job is important," he said. "We need engineers to keep the ship running, cooks to keep us fed, damage controlmen to lead us in fighting shipboard fires and so on. But, this is an AEGIS-class destroyer. This ship was designed to defend. We go out in a strike group with an aircraft carrier, and if there is a threat to that carrier, we will be the one who defends her. The weapons system aboard is what takes this ship from a cruise liner and turns her into a warship. It's our bread and butter."

In November, Casper will transfer to Great Lakes, Illinois, to teach junior Sailors at "A" school. As he approaches his transfer date, he has begun reflecting on his time on board the ship.

"I think what drives this ship is the crew - you need the little guys and the seasoned technicians who do the grunt work," Casper said. "You need the new guys so you can train them up to replace you, and you need the senior leadership to set the example. I would like to think this ship has a little different bond than other ships. I'm glad I got orders here and not somewhere else."

For Casper, the pride he feels in his shipmates and his ship is simple.

"You like the place where you're from," he stated. "You may have a bad day and say something bad about your ship, but when you're out in town and there are other Sailors there and you start talking about your ships, well, your ship is always the best. Howard is the best ship in the fleet."
Three photo collage of Sailors manning a fire control station, a CIWS firing, and Petty Officer Aron Casper.

Lover of the Boat
The Sailors in Deck department will tell you there is a correct way to paint the outside, or skin, of the ship, or speak with broad knowledge of the countless number of knots that can be tied with a single piece of line. Seaman Caitlyn Radke is no different. When she speaks about the responsibilities and diversity of her job, her eyes light up and her already broad gestures grow even more animated. It's obvious she loves her job and the work she does.

Radke has been aboard Howard for just under two years and is proud of having the opportunity to serve on the ship. Underway, you might find her in the Boatswain's locker doing fancy work (the name given to the "fancy" leatherwork and knot tying), driving a rigid hull inflatable boat on a search and rescue mission or directing a helicopter as the landing signalman (enlisted).

"There's always rust somewhere on the ship that needs painting," Radke said. "There's always something for us to do. And, we can't leave work until the work is done, and done perfectly. I think that gives us an extra bit of pride in our work, and more of a sense of ownership."

For Radke, serving aboard Howard carries a personal significance that goes beyond taking pride in her work. Both of her grandfathers served in the Korean War and the Vietnam Conflict - as did Staff Sgt. Howard.

I think he [Howard] was so impressive because he was able to lead his men to success just with the knowledge that he had." - Seaman Caitlyn Radke

"Our ship is kind of like him - we are a tiny ship traveling with a giant strike group - full of bigger ships. But we have the task of protecting everyone," said Radke.

Howard can claim success for those tasks because of their track record, Radke explained.

She went on to tell about a time Howard got a distress call from the USNS Sioux (T-ATF-171).

"Normally, they would be the kind of ship that tugs in other boats, but we had to tug them in," she said. "We got the call at 3 a.m., and it's a massive job. You need every person in Deck department, as well as your chief and divisional officer to be there to ensure it gets done, and we did it."

Radke said Howard was able to help the Sioux because the ship is constantly training to fight the ship.

"I know that when we get called to go underway on short notice, it's because our ship is always ready," Radke said. "We pass all of our certifications because of the hard work of the crew. This ship takes every preparation period and drill seriously. I like the fact that we're one of the best ships on the waterfront."

For Radke, the secret to Howard's success is simple. It lies in the camaraderie of the crew, and the example and expectations the leadership sets for the crew.

"We're like a family," she said. "We're working together all of the time, so we have to make it work. Our leadership has given us the tools we need in order to be successful. Every time something needs to get done, there are a lot of moving parts. But we've been trained to know that we have to take our time, so we don't miss any steps. That's what makes us successful."

Another trait Howard's leadership displays: mentorship. And that's the trait Radke takes the most seriously.

"I know what I'm doing, and can get things done when I need to," she said. "But I also have to try to teach the new guys, so that they can do my job as well - and I get excited about that."
Three photo collage of Seaman Caitlyn Radke, topside of USS Howard, and Sailors conducting an underway replenishment.

The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest award an American service member can earn. The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who have earned the medal have distinguished themselves from their peers by displaying extraordinary feats of selflessness. The price many recipients have paid for the Medal has been their life - for others it's been the lives of the friends and brothers they tried to save but couldn't. While the service of every man and woman in uniform involves danger, sacrifice, and courage, it is true that Medal of Honor recipients have sacrificed more, faced more danger, and shown more courage than their brothers and sisters in arms. They are real heroes and cut from a different cloth than the average service member.

When Staff Sgt. Howard received his Medal of Honor from President Johnson, he took the president by the hand, and introduced him to each of the surviving members of his platoon. Without those men, Howard said, he would not have survived the attack on Hill 488.

Though USS Howard is forged from the same metal and fires as other ships in the fleet, it is her crew that sets her apart. Their pride in carrying on the traditions and expectations of the ship's namesake has carried them to the head of the pack, and will continue to keep Howard powered, and propel them into victory for years to come.
An infographic on USS Howard. Facts listed at the end of story.

USS Howard (DDG 83)
-Has 312 officer and enlisted Sailors
-Holds two MH-60 Seahawk Helicopters
-Has a beam of 66 feet and a draft of 22 feet
-8,960 tons displacement
-Length of 509 feet and 6 inches
-Speed that exceeds 31 knots
-Armament includes Vertical Launch System (VLS) forward and aft capable of firing Tomahawk cruise missiles, Surface-to-air missiles, Anti-submarine Rockets (ASROC), Sea Sparrow missiles (self defense), six torpedo tubes
-Homeport is San Diego
-Commissioned on October 20, 2001 in Galveston, Texas
-Namesake: While serving in Vietnam, platoon leader Staff Sgt. and his 18-man platoon were operating as forward observers deep in enemy territory on Hill 488. Against overwhelming odds in the face of a determined and much larger force of Viet Cong, Staff Sgt. Howard and his men successfully defended their position and platoon until relieved. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented our nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, to Howard for his efforts in Vietnam. Howard continued his service and retired at the rank of 1st Sgt.