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The U.S. Navy's Best-kept Secret - Strategic Sealift Officers

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Story by PO1 Kyle Steckler on 12/12/2018
Since it's establishment in 1915, the U.S. Navy Reserve has grown to be a dependable, worldwide force of nearly 100,000 Reserve Sailor including more than 57,000 Selected Reservists.
Reservists serve in nearly every capacity as active-duty counterparts. At any given time, there are an estimated 3,000 mobilized Reservists serving around the world. But there's one corner of the Navy Reserve world that isn't often talked about; the strategic sealift officer.
A counterpart to the Navy's Military Sealift Command, SSOs are commissioned officers in the Navy Reserve assigned to reserve U.S. Naval activities that support strategic sealift in times of national defense or emergency.
The Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport ship USNS Carson City currently has four SSOs serving aboard the ship.
In the five years since graduating from the United States Merchant Marine Academy located in King's Point, New York, Carson City's navigator and operations officer, Second Mate Chris Scott, has gained the knowledge and experience necessary to be the subject matter expert the U.S. Navy is looking for.
Scott graduated in 2013 after four years at the academy. Upon graduation, he was commissioned as an ensign in the Navy Reserve; however, his journey from USMMA cadet to now Second Mate aboard an expeditionary fast transport ship started in high school.
"I first heard about the academy probably my sophomore year of high school," said Scott. "I'm from a land-locked state, specifically Wichita, Kansas, so there aren't any navigable waterways near me. The Mississippi River is hundreds of miles away for instance, so I'm asked all the time how I found my way to King's Point, New York, going to a maritime academy."
Scott said that after spending his summers on the Gulf Coast with his father, he knew early on he wanted to be on the water.
"Originally, I wanted to be a marine biologist," said Scott. "So I looked into colleges with good programs, and with the costs of tuition and things like that, I realized it was a bit of a pipe dream for me. Scholarship money just wasn't there for someone in Kansas wanting to pursue a maritime career."
He said he then considered joining the military, but in his research, he stumbled upon USMMA.
"About two months later, I saw a letter come through from [USMMA] saying they would love to have me come swim for them," said Scott. "So I already knew about the school from research, but around then I knew I needed to start being a little more serious about where I wanted to go to college. After receiving that letter, I thought to myself, Wait a minute, this could actually work.'"
Scott started doing more research. After talking to some of his father's friends who are prior military about their academy experiences, he said he became very interested in the options going to the merchant marine academy would offer him.
"I could go active duty military or I could sail for a living," said Scott. "Stuff like that. Then I could also swim at school. It just seemed right for me. It all lined up."
Scott was accepted to USMMA and four years later was not only a commissioned ensign in the United States Navy Reserve, he was about to embark on another journey.
"After graduating, I took a job with [Military Sealift Command] as a third mate in September 2013," said Scott. "Five years later, and I'm still loving it."
Carson City's chief mate and first officer Roshenda Jospehs, another USMMA graduate who took a path similar to that of Scott's, said that though being a mate in MSC is her day job, she still learns many things in her capacity as a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve.
"The most impactful ADT for me was when I acted as a force protection officer in Subic Bay in the Philippines," said Josephs, referring to required, annual Active Duty for Training period all Reservists must complete. "I say that because I was, as a Reservist, working directly with MSC ships."
The fact that strategic service officers like Josephs work in a civilian job field so closely related to their Reserve service focuses on one of Vice Adm. Luke M. McCollum's, the chief of Navy Reserve and commander, Navy Reserve Force, "Ready to Win" initiatives innovation. The idea being Reservists can use one part of their life to inform the other, bringing the best of both worlds together, creating a more impactful Sailor.
"While I was in Subic Bay, we would go on every single commercial, MSC or Navy ship that came into the port and would conduct force protection spot checks or force protection assessments, said Joseph. "I was the auditor for the Navy side back then, but now that I'm a chief mate for MSC, now I have to provide those reports to the force protection action officer."
Josephs graduated from the USMMA in 2013, the same year as Scott. She said she was initially approached by basketball coaches from the academy after a game. Six months after the meeting, she scheduled an overnight visit and liked what she saw.
"The main reason I wanted to go to the academy is because it's very structured," said Josephs. "It's a military academy. I felt like transitioning from high school to college can go two different ways; you can either find a structured path and follow that or you can just blow with the wind. I didn't want a chance of blowing with the wind in a typical college environment. I decided to put myself in a situation where I didn't have a choice."
Four years later and Josephs found herself with not only a degree (IN WHAT?), but also a job with Military Sealift Command as a civil service mariner.
Attending USMMA isn't the only way to become an SSO. Carson City's captain, Jonathan Keffer, an SSO commander and 13-year MSC civil service mariner, became an SSO after serving on active duty for more than eight years and attending State University of New York Maritime College.
Keffer was stationed aboard the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Donald Cook from 2001-2004 as a surface warfare officer (SWO) and participated in some of the earliest operations as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The SWO lifestyle began to take its toll on him, though.
"Because I had gone to a maritime college, and a lot of my colleagues who graduated around the year 2000 had been hired by Military Sealift Command, they were doing a lot more professional, unencumbered work that was much different than the Navy surface warfare culture I was used to," said Keffer. "They were getting promoted and were getting much more direct experience as commercial mariners. That was really appealing to me."
He said he saw the work that Military Sealift Command was doing and decided that it was the culture and career he'd rather pursue.
"There are several aspects of MSC that make it rewarding," said Keffer. "Professionally, as an individual mariner, you are expected to show up to a ship, learn the job, do the job, gain experience, perform and be well rounded. In the course of six years, I was able to go from third mate to temporary ship's master. So the opportunity with Military Sealift Command to go and learn and excel is much more individual compared to my experience as a junior officer in the surface warfare community."
Another thing that Keffer said attracted him to the MSC lifestyle is how it benefits his family.
"My family lives in one place," he said. "My children are growing up in one place. I don't have to pack them up and move them every two to three years for a 20-30 year Navy career. I deploy all around the world to any ship, any ocean, but my family has continuity."
Keffer said that working for MSC isn't all roses, though. MSC schedules typically see civil service mariners working a minimum of four months at sea and up to two months of time ashore. That means that, at a minimum, he's gone on average eight months a year.
"My family is used to the lifestyle," said Keffer. "My kids have been raised that way. It's not for everyone, though. An old, grey-bearded captain once told me, It's a hard life, but it's a good life.'"
In a world where it can sometimes be difficult to find a job, attending a maritime academy with an interest in finding a job with Military Sealift Command isn't a bad roll of the dice.
"After graduation, I'd say about 90 percent of us already had a job lined up, which is huge," said Josephs. "The December before we graduated, I had already been offered a job by MSC."
Josephs said she was in the first new employee orientation she could take after graduation, so after taking the summer off, she reported for her initial MSC training.
"We did about nine weeks of training, which started in Norfolk, Virginia, and we completed the training in Earl, New Jersey," she said. "We took classes like small-arms training and firefighting, some safety classes, all the basics that someone needs to get on their first ship. When I finished, I went to the "pool," where I waited for an assignment. I waited maybe two weeks before I was assigned my first ship, USNS Joshua Humphreys."
Similarly, Scott said his career as an MSC mate has been able to translate directly to his naval service as well. He was able to help a new expeditionary high-speed transport with important preparation for one of the last pieces necessary for MSC to take control of the ship.
"During my last ADT, one of the things I did was assist the navigator and boatswain on board USNS City of Bismarck with mock Final Contract Trial STAED sheets," said Scott about Sea Trial Agenda Event Description sheets as part of the final demonstration of ship's capabilities prior to the end of the contractor warranty period.
Due to his previous experience working with Military Sealift Command and while serving in the capacity of a Navy Reservist, Scott was able to personally help another ship with a difficult transition period as a ship begins to be fully handed over to the Navy.
"Almost everything we do as civil service mariners translates to some part of being a Reservist," said Scott. "Whether its calculating stability, planning an upcoming voyage, standing watch, or knowing how to manage my time, they are all skills paramount in times of emergency or national defense when you're called upon to serve."
Both Josephs and Scott agree that the life of a civil service mariner and a strategic sealift officer is not an easy one, but Scott did have some advice for those considering a career as a mariner by way of the USMMA.
"To put it bluntly, it's a roller coaster ride from start to finish," said Scott. "It's not going to be easy, and no one gets through it alone. In my career field, you will get to see, meet and experience places that people dream about traveling to. It's a job that is out of the ordinary, but it's worth it. In the end, like I did, you will look back at the whirlwind of events that transpired for four years and say it was worth it.'"
For more information on careers with Military Sealift Command, visit https://sealiftcommand.com. For more information on the Strategic Service Officer program, visit www.usmma.edu/academics/departments/strategic-sealift-officer.
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