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SPEECH | Sept. 11, 2015

TF 144 Change of Command Ceremony


Distinguished guests, fellow flag and general officers, ladies and gentlemen, family and friends, men and women of the Submarine Force – Good morning. 

It’s truly an honor to be back here on the Norfolk waterfront celebrating with [Vice Admiral] Mike and Kate Connor as they end a spectacular career, spanning 36 years of dedicated and faithful service to our nation; and also welcoming [Vice Admiral] Joe and Suzanne Tofalo to the U.S. Strategic Command family.

This extraordinarily large crowd is a powerful statement, not only about our Sailors we are honoring today, but also about the importance and the significance of submarine operations around the globe, as part of our nation’s strategic deterrence forces, in support of our National Security and National Military Strategies.

So it’s great to see you all here, particularly the family members, also those who have journeyed from many parts of our country as well as from other parts of the world; and      the number of active duty and retired flag officers and general officers here is truly impressive. I won’t list all the names, but to know that there is like, active and retired, six four-star admirals here and just the number of three stars, etc.; pretty impressive all-star line-up.

I also want to salute our submarine veterans that are out there, and all that you do and the legacy we ride upon. And for all the Sailors and our civilian workforce who operate, maintain, and provide security for our submarines, that are represented so vividly here by this great vessel, the USS Newport News.

Well, today is an important day for many reasons.  We will observe the change of command from one exceptional leader to another. We will recognize Mike’s accomplishments, honor a lifetime of service, and express our heartfelt appreciation to the Connor family for their many contributions to our joint military force.

Our nation is blessed to have leaders like Mike and Joe here leading our Navy.

To the Tofalo family – Suzanne, and daughters Nicole and Maria – welcome to the U.S. Strategic Command family, and I want to thank you for the continued support of your dad and husband’s career including this very demanding job he is about to undertake. 

Joe…you are joining the team at a critical time, but given your credentials and your deep understanding of the challenges and opportunities we face, I can’t think of a better leader postured to lead the submarine force and TF 144.

Given your most impressive resume, I look forward to your strategic thinking and critical thought; especially important given this uncertain and dynamically changing world we live in.

So I am especially challenged today to attempt to pay appropriate respect to Mike in the short timeframe provided.  So, let me start with his undergraduate days at Bowdoin College, located in Maine, which Mike describes as a liberal arts school. 

You see, during his interview for the nuclear propulsion program, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover questioned Mike’s choice of a liberal arts college. 

Now Mike had to spend some quality time in his interview there in what we called “the closet,” to think about his answer. But Mike came out of that closet swinging and told the great Admiral Hyman G. Rickover that he would do just fine if accepted into the program; being that he was, of course, a Physics major.

So Bowdoin College not only provided Mike that great education and foundation, but more importantly, Mike met his lovely bride, Kate, in an electronics-engineering lab there, I’m told.  Sounds to me like there were some special sparks going on in that lab or what we like to term, in nuclear reactor physics, as “binding energy,” for they’ve now been married for some 34 years.

I think all who serve would agree that we could not do our mission without the constant and reassuring support from our loved ones.

Kate – Bonny often reminds me about the sacrifices endured by our military families, and I can assure you I don’t take that for granted.

Not only did you juggle your career as a Physician’s Assistant and Medical School Professor, you also raised three wonderful and intelligent daughters -- it’s evident from your award that you were also involved in and around our military communities, especially in support of our Sailors and their families.

I can’t thank you enough for what you have done, for your continued support of Mike, and your family, as well as your extended Navy family.

Elizabeth, Christina, and Marie – while I am sure you have fond memories from your Navy experiences, it is not lost on me that it’s not easy growing up as a military family – leaving behind the familiar for the unknown, and knowing that as important as it was, your dad’s service and the deployments meant that he could not always be with you.

I know your dad is extremely proud of each of you, University of Virginia graduates, and how you adapted and always found opportunities to excel:

• Marie – an aspiring chef – maybe I will get to sample some of your lovely cuisine my next time in New York City.

• Christina – working for Google in Manhattan; perhaps I will be asking you for a job when I retire.

• And Elizabeth – in residency to become an OB-GYN/Oncologist while also a mom to six-month-old Sloan, as was mentioned; Mike and Kate’s granddaughter. Now as a second-time grandfather, I’m happy to share a few stories there too.

Similarly, I know you, too, are proud of your dad; who answered our nation’s call, juggling a demanding career, and made our country safer – not only for you, but for generations to come.

Mike, as I look back I am reminded of how different the strategic landscape was when you graduated from college to what we see today – just a few, short decades later.

In the early 80’s, what did we have? The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan; our nation was dealing with the failed Iranian hostage crisis; we had the ‘83 Beirut bombings; we responded to turmoil in Grenada with Operation Urgent Fury; and a Korean Airliner was shot down by the Soviets.

Mike, this was just within your first three years of service.

Along with these crises, the Cold War persisted, putting the world on edge as many wondered what the Soviet Union would do next. 

While the sense of crisis eased a bit after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, our submarine strategic forces continued to  “silently” maintain their important role of deterring adversaries and assuring Allies, as they had for almost 30 years, as the new security environment evolved.

Fast forward here – then came 9/11 – the day that will forever change how we view peace and freedom, and the democratic values we hold so dear. 

While our national attention was rightly focused on these emerging and  asymmetric terrorist threats, Mike not only worked to address those threats, but at the same time, he did not lose sight of the strategic environment and remained acutely aware of the seriousness that other nation states, such as Russia, China and North Korea posed, as they began modernizing their nuclear weapons capability, developing and demonstrating mobile strategic platforms, and investing in counter-space and cyber-space technologies.

As a submarine Prospective Commanding Officer Instructor (during) 9/11, Mike taught future Commanding Officer’s about the criticality of our undersea domain and our strategic deterrent force – and many also went on to commands that contributed to our counter-terrorism campaigns.

Clearly, Mike has seen a tectonic shift in the landscape in the course of his 36 years. 

He has dedicated his career not only to leading the men and women of our all-volunteer force, especially the all-volunteer submarine force, but to also improving our submarine capabilities that allow us to respond to these hotspots of activity and uncertainty around the globe.

Under his astute leadership, the submarine force as a whole has undergone enormous change and improvement:

• He sustained operational excellence with an unparalleled emphasis on safe operations;

•             He modernized the force through the installation of the common submarine radio room and universal tactical fire control system; and

• He increased the ballistic missile submarine operational availability – an important endeavor, given that our Ohio-class SSBN submarines will be operating for an unprecedented 42 years – six years longer than the USS Kamehameha – previously our longest operating submarine.

You know, I saw Kamehameha before she was decommissioned, and I can tell you, she required a lot of care and attention in those final days – further highlighting the importance of maintaining 14 Ohio-class SSBNs to continue meeting my strategic requirements; for which Mike has been a staunch advocate.

As the Ohio-class submarines continue to mature, we must be mindful that they will be harder to maintain, and increasingly will require more heroic efforts from our Sailors, and our maintenance personnel, and the industrial base that supports them to keep them operating. 

There is no margin left to delay replacing the Ohio-class submarines.  Even in this fiscally constrained environment, our nation must invest in its replacement. 

Our nuclear deterrent capabilities, including the survivable at-sea leg – the SSBN – is needed to ensure that any nation that thinks they can escalate their way out of a failed conflict, understands that restraint is a better option.

I commend the work not just of Mike and Joe, but that of the community at large, what they’ve done to get the Ohio Replacement Program on track.

Beyond the hardware, Mike’s thoughtful leadership approach has been essential to spearheading the Nuclear Enterprise improvement programs by sharing best practices, lessons learned, and                                                      working behind the scenes with other key leaders,  

especially my Air Force nuclear task force commanders.

While Mike has served on five submarines as a crewmember including his favorite tour as Commanding Officer of USS Seawolf, I believe his legacy will continue in the people he has trained, the forward leaning technology and solutions he’s

worked on, and his stalwart advocacy for our submarine programs.

I am certain that he will be remembered also, as a TV celebrity. Perhaps some of you saw him in his starring role in the recent PBS documentary, entitled “How many ballistic missile submarines does the U.S. Navy need.” If you didn’t see it, I’m told you can see it on YouTube, so Google it, and I hope you’ll watch it.

I am extremely proud of how he represented U.S. Strategic Command’s deterrence and assurance mission, making it clear, in that presentation, that we use our nuclear weapons every day to deter major power war – something we have done successfully over the last 70 years. 

Kate, Elizabeth, Christina, and Marie, I hope that Admiral Davidson’s and my words, and from the award citation you will hear momentarily – that you understand that your husband and your dad has made a mark on history.

I realize we use a lot of “military speak,” but I’m mindful that it isn’t always as meaningful for those of you who don’t live with those terms every day.

So simply put, he made a difference.  He made a difference not only in the operations and management of our submarine forces, but in our most important and vital resource – our people.

His down-to-earth leadership style, his always professional manner, his ability to mentor, made a lasting impression on everyone he met.

Mike – if I could sum up your career using an analogy from a sports team I know you admire, I would put it like this: 

Your career can be modeled after “Big Papi” from the Boston Red Sox – a man who conquered the Green Wall repeatedly, hitting some 498 homeruns and counting.

Your career, Mike, has been homerun after homerun, and has been inspirational to all of us in the submarine community.

I am confident that Admiral Hyman G. Rickover would be proud he selected you for the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. 

No matter your assignment – whether commanding the submarine USS Seawolf, or commanding Submarine Group 7, or Director for Submarine Warfare, or in your current role – you made analytical and tangible changes to improve every aspect of our force, from our crews to the hardware; and I couldn’t agree more with CNO Greenert’s assessment that you are leaving the submarine force in a much better condition than you found it. 

Your legacy as a brilliant strategist, an operator and a mentor will guide those left behind who now have the watch. 

Congratulations on a remarkable career – and thank you for your more than 36 years of loyal service to our country, conducted with honor, courage and commitment. 

While you will be sorely missed, I am certain, though, that you will find ways to continue serving our country.

In the meantime, given your roots in the New England area and  the “other love” in your life,  your fishing boat – “The Katie J” –  it is no surprise that you are heading for Mystic, Connecticut, for some well-deserved rest.

I hope you get to do more of the things you and Kate enjoy, including spending some time with your daughters and  grandbaby, and I look forward to hearing some updates about your future endeavors.

I would like to leave you with a quote – by Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots coach, with whom I am sure many in the audience are familiar with.  It’s very fitting for this family, given your passion for New England sports. And the results of last night’s football game. The quote goes like this:

"There is an old saying about the strength of the wolf is the pack…On a football team, it's not the strength of the individual players, but it’s the strength of the unit and how they all function together." 

Just like the Connor family has shown us.  As a family, you are representative of the sacrifices and demands of our joint military families, and what it takes to allow our service members not only to serve, but to excel.

How about a round of applause for this special family, and their service and support to our nation.

As much as I would like to stay longer on this beautiful waterfront, it’s time for me to get off this stage. So I want to thank you all for being here this morning. 

Mike, I wish you and Kate fair winds and following seas. 

May God continue to bless these leaders, our Navy, and a grateful nation, the United States of America.