Beneath the sea: Service, sacrifice, strength (Commentary)

  • Published
  • By Kisha Foster Johnson
  • 78th Air Base Wing Public Affairs Office

“Every day in Middle Georgia is Armed Forces Appreciation Day.”

This Houston County motto is something that is near and dear to many people in the local community. After all, this is home to Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, the largest employer in the area and a major player in our nation’s defense.

As a public affairs specialist for Robins AFB, it’s easy to have tunnel vision regarding this branch of service. Naturally, that would be expected since I am constantly writing or taking pictures for stories that normally highlight Airmen, their missions and/or their families. But this story’s focus will be different. Indulge me as I direct attention to the United States Navy, another branch where patriots are serving and sacrificing for our country.

Whether in the air or below the sea, Air Force and Naval leadership are keenly aware that a successful defense is dependent upon having a focused and skilled team that maintains mission readiness. They know communication, fostering trust, and collaboration makes for a cohesive team among their Wingmen and Shipmates. These leaders must also be adaptable to changing circumstances and quick decision-makers.

In both realms, superiority and security are priorities to protect the United States and its allies. A critical role in navigation of aircraft or ships/submarines is the electromagnetic spectrum. This unseen battlespace relies on electromagnetic waves for communication, radar and allows radio frequencies to communicate with each other and maintain situation awareness.

On February 23, 2024, my cousin and Macon, Georgia, native, Commander Burnes C. W. Brown, elevated his leadership journey when he was named commanding officer of the USS South Dakota during a ceremony at the Naval Submarine Base, Kings Bay, Georgia. This was the first naval ceremony I ever attended. 

It was an honor to be among his many family, friends and shipmates who traveled from around the globe – near and far – to witness his major career milestone. The ceremony was similar in some respects to the Air Force change of command ceremonies. The attendees heard from a guest speaker, the outgoing commander and the incoming commander.

Commander Brown addressed his family and gifted each an item.

“Elliot and Aden, I love watching you learn, ask questions, and grow up. Keep asking questions and keep working at being kind to each other. You both know I will be away from home sometimes. I’ll count on you to help your mom,” he said. “Whitney, I love you. You have been my best friend and partner half of my life…I infinitely complicated our life with my career. You’ve been all in on this Navy adventure from the start, and I don’t have the words to properly convey my gratitude.”

He also acknowledged his crew.

“You are the life blood of this boat. Without you it’s just a hunk of steel and nothing more,” he continued. “I look forward to getting to know you and each of your families as we prepare to execute the nation’s business...I do not take my responsibilities lightly. We are a warship, and I am responsible for each and every one of you.”

Sitting in the audience, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the awesome opportunity of touring the USS South Dakota the day before. This was a first-time and more than likely once-in-a-lifetime-experience that will be unforgettable.

After boarding the USS South Dakota, it didn’t take long to realize that a vessel like this is truly a confined space. It’s 377 feet long and 34 feet wide. There are only a few places where a person can stretch their arms sideways. It was even impossible for my 8-year-old daughter to do. Underneath the floors, above the ceilings and inside the walls, every inch of space on the boat is utilized to aid the mission.

Comfort and personal space are not priorities. The world under the sea is far from a vacation cruise. Think sardines in a can when it comes to sleeping quarters. The bunk beds are stacked in threes with around a foot and a half space between each bed and only individual curtains for privacy. I learned a new term: “hot racking.” This means several crew members must take turns sharing the same bunk bed. While some are on duty, others are sleeping. When it’s time to swap out, sailors change linens and freshen up the space for the next person to rest after duty.

Other unique challenges include being deprived of sunlight for months at a time, no personal space, and isolation from the outside world. This means limited or no communication with family members. For security reasons, phone calls and emails are primarily devoted to official business and emergencies. However, on the sporadic occasions, an email dump of “family grams” happens. Here’s the catch, no large attachments can be sent, and each gram is limited to only a few sentences. And if that is not challenging enough, multiple messages may not be delivered in chronological order. To reduce confusion, senders will number each gram to let the recipient know in which order to read the correspondences.

Just like the Air Force, building resiliency is a task that comes with the demands of military life. The spouses and children left behind on the homefront find ways to cope with their loved ones who are away. Camaraderie among other submarine families is an avenue of emotional support and understanding, as life above the ocean’s surface continues.

The pomp and circumstance of this change of command was a sight to behold. The transition of power is not a light-hearted affair. It is a burden and a duty to protect our country. From the depths of the sea, sailors play a critical role working to deter, defeat, and defend our nation against adversaries.

Godspeed to Commander Brown, the USS South Dakota crew and your families. Thank you all for your service, sacrifice and strength.

Editor’s Note: According to the U.S. Fleet Forces Command website, the USS South Dakota is a fast-attack submarine with multi-mission platforms enabling five of the six Navy maritime strategy core capabilities – sea control, power projection, forward presence, maritime security and deterrence. It is designed to excel in anti-submarine warfare, anti-ship warfare, strike warfare, special operations, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, irregular warfare and mine warfare. Fast-attack submarines project power ashore with special operations forces and Tomahawk cruise missiles in the prevention or response to regional crises.