For several hours each day, the lives of 5,000 men and women depend on the decisions of a 25-year-old Somerset man. That’s a lot of responsibility for someone so young, but as Ensign Dominic Montez explains, the U.S. Navy expects a lot from its sailors.
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The 26-year-old naval officer is the only Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) aboard the nuclear-powered, Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73) home ported in Yokosuka, Japan. Earning qualification as a surface warfare officer is a distinction to which he is dedicated.
Often, up to four hours of his days at sea are spent on watch qualifying to be an Officer of the Deck (underway). With that qualification, he will be responsible for the safety of the ship while its commanding officer is not on the bridge. Qualified OODs “conn” (control) the ship without supervision.
The “GW” is a not just any vessel to conn. The fourth U.S. Navy ship to bear the father of our country’s name, she cost $4.5 billion to construct, weighs 97,000 tons, carries 75 fixed-wing aircraft, can cruise at more than 30 knots, stands 244-feet-tall from keel to mast, has a flight deck nearly 1,100 feet long, and is one of the most lethal and capable warships at sea.
Having the conn of a ship that enormous is a responsibility as large. Not many corporate executives ever have the direct responsibility to oversee facilities as valuable or manage as many people. In his Auxiliary Equipment Division, Ensign Montez directs the work of eight chief petty officers and 100 sailors, mostly Machinist Mate and Engineman ratings, who maintain such valuable and varied machinery as: aircraft elevators, anchor windlasses, mooring capstans, hot water heaters, air conditioning plants, conveyors, catapult steam systems, waste management systems, and more.
Ensign Montez describes his division as maintaining every type of machinery other than nuclear. What’s been most unexpected of his first assignment, he said, is the amount of responsibility given not just to him but also to each of the 100 sailors in his division. “Even a Fireman with basic A-school training is expected to maintain equipment that is important to ship operations,” he said.
The high expectations that the Navy has of him and his men and women have resulted in a different type of sailor than the deckhand many old salts knew. Mister Montez said he was expecting more personnel issues when he arrived aboard ship, but found that his division pretty well polices itself. The chiefs and leading petty officers straighten out performance or disciplinary issues early and sailors quickly learn what’s expected to succeed and be respected.
There’s little time aboard ship for skylarking (fooling around) particularly on a busy ship like George Washington. Six months of the year, she is at sea, patrolling the western Pacific. Ensign Montez’ typical day includes rising, cleaning up, chowing down, meeting with his chiefs, overseeing progress on machinery maintenance, having a midday meal, then perhaps four hours on watch (often on the ship’s bridge), back to checking work in progress, catching up on paperwork and writing enlisted evaluations, physical fitness, evening chow, then taking whatever time is left in the day to study for surface warfare qualification.
Still, he says, “the sunsets out to sea are the best you will ever see in your life,” and the thrill of watching “the afterburners of an F/A-18 Super Hornet while it is being launched off the catapult… the flame vortex, the noise, the shaking of the ship… are amazing to witness. It is the drag races, only better.” Then too, he has had the opportunity to make history when his ship played an important role in Operation Damayan providing lifesaving support and critical relief supplies to the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan last November, and opportunities to visit exotic ports of call, including Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Japan in what he described as “one of the few jobs in the world that allow one to travel to distant places, while earning a paycheck.”
George Washington is Ensign Montez’ first ship and his first duty assignment after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, being commissioned as a naval officer and attending Basic Division Officer school and Surface Warfare school, last year. He will remain aboard the GW for up to another year.
Ensign Montez enlisted in the Navy in 2007, after having been a 2006 graduate of Union Mine High School. He said he “started out at the bottom of the chain of command,” though seized the opportunity to attend the Naval Academy, given to a limited number of enlisted personnel, each year. “I can’t think of any companies that give new university graduates the opportunity to lead over 100 people without working their entire life for the company,” he said, “I am the lowest of the commissioned officer ranks and the responsibility level… is second to none.”
Shipboard life is work, study and dedication to Ensign Montez, but it’s also a special bond among seafaring men and women. “Naval service is one of the oldest professions in the world. The Navy is still full of tradition. The dress uniform has changed very little over the years and is instantly recognizable as a sailor’s uniform. You make so many close friends in the service, spending more time with your peers than families ever spend together. You sleep together, eat together and work together every day at sea.”
Within a month, Ensign Montez is expected to qualify as OOD underway. Following his two-year tour aboard George Washington, he will request rotation to an information systems officer assignment which includes computer and network systems (his college degree from the Naval Academy was in computer sciences).
Before he rotates out of Yokosuka, Ensign Montez is planning to explore Japan, learn its language, immerse himself in its culture, visit Tokyo and – true to his El Dorado County/Sierra Nevada roots (his parents, Dominic and Suzanne Montez and sister, Lauren Hernandez live in Somerset) – climb Mt. Fuji. Until then, Ensign Dominic Montez will continue to grow in responsibility, but then the U.S. Navy expects a lot from its sailors.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.