My dad has always been my hero. It should come as no surprise, then, that I followed his example of service in the U.S. Navy. Like him, I have pursued a career as a surface warfare officer, and, as might be expected, we experienced similar career milestones, from division officer to command at sea. I took command of the destroyer USS Roosevelt (DDG-80) 32 years after he took command of the destroyer USS Peterson (DD-969); I took command of Destroyer Squadron 21 32 years after he took command of Destroyer Squadron 36. In two particular assignments, however, my career matched his in a way that went from merely interesting to somewhat eerie, even historic.
A Most Consequential Move
In fall 1984, my father was stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, when he received orders to his first Pentagon tour. It probably was one of the shortest tours in history as, as soon he arrived—and before the family had moved—he was summoned to Annapolis to interview for the Commandant of Midshipmen job at the U.S. Naval Academy, following the unexpected death of Rear Admiral Les Palmer. My father was selected to be the 71st commandant.
Our family moved into the commandant’s quarters at 14 Porter Road. Without question, the highlight of living on the Yard was the interaction with the midshipmen. That interaction played a big part in both my brother and me becoming singularly focused on attending the Naval Academy. Following high school graduation, I departed for the Naval Academy Preparatory School, mercifully ensuring that I would not be a Naval Academy midshipman whose father was serving as commandant.
My father considers his tour as commandant the most rewarding non-seagoing tour of his career. Even at the time, with my untrained eye, I sensed how rewarding it was for him and also the impact he was having. However, if I had been given a crystal ball back then, I would have paid significantly greater attention to other aspects of the job.
‘YOU’RE KIDDING ME’
In 2016, I was called into Vice Admiral Tom Rowden’s office at the Commander Naval Surface Forces/Naval Surface Forces Pacific headquarters in Coronado, California. “Hey, Robb,” he said, “just wanted to let you know I submitted your name as the surface community nominee to be the next Commandant of Midshipmen.” I was somehow able to get my vocal cords to function enough to thank him for the opportunity as I walked out of his office in a daze. I went back to my office, grabbed my cell phone and my cover, and stepped outside into the sun on a gorgeous San Diego day.
Now, I want to make it clear that if I had been notified of a nomination that could result in a short-notice move for any other billet in the Navy, I would have called my wife first! But this wasn’t any other billet. I remember my finger hovering over my dad’s number on the phone. When he answered, I told him I had just been summoned to the SWO Boss’s office. When I told him about the nomination, there was an inordinately long pause, followed by a disbelieving, “You’re kidding me.”
I knew there was no guarantee I would be heading back to Annapolis, but whether it worked out or not, I knew I would always have that moment with my dad.
Soon after, I flew to Annapolis to interview. It was a strange feeling to be back at the Academy under those circumstances. I felt everything went well, but one never knows. Several days before Christmas, I received a call from the Superintendent’s flag aide informing me that Vice Admiral Ted Carter wanted to talk to me the next morning.
At 0900 the next day, I was standing in the exact spot outside headquarters where I had called my dad to discuss the nomination two months earlier. My phone rang, displaying the coveted Annapolis area code. When I answered, Admiral Carter responded, “Good morning, Robb. So, are you still interested in the job?” It was official. I would serve as the 87th Commandant of Midshipmen.
I called my dad, and I could tell he had his phone on speaker. I said, “How are you 71? This is 87 calling.” I would like to be able to recount what he said, but it was drowned out by my mom’s emotional reaction in the background.
During the five-minute walk back to the house, the news started to sink in. When I walked into the house, my wife and daughter’s eyes seemed as big as saucers. I smiled and said, ‘We’re heading to Annapolis.” My daughter, who was in eighth grade, broke down in tears. They were not tears of joy.
Return To The Academy
Moving back to 14 Porter Road brought back a lot of memories. Our daughter quickly came to love the experience, and she, too, fell in love with Annapolis. She also quickly fit in at St. Mary’s High School, the same school that had welcomed my brother and me with open arms 31 years before. I immediately knew this was going to be a special tour for our family and a once in a lifetime opportunity for me.
In the commandant’s conference room for my first meeting, I looked up and saw my father’s picture staring down at me. I knew then our unique connection would be a big part of the tour. I was okay with that. I was immensely proud to be following in my hero’s footsteps. I never tired of graduates who returned to the Academy for reunions and other events excitedly coming up to me to point out that my dad had been their commandant.
The midshipmen were the highlight of my time as commandant. One of the joys of my post-commandant life has been crossing paths with many of my former midshipmen and seeing them excelling in the fleet. I know that also has been the case for my father for the past 35 years.
The first father and son Commandants of Midshipmen in Naval Academy history. Pretty special . . . but lightning never strikes twice, right?
Home To Hawaii
At the end of my plebe year at the Naval Academy, my father received orders to Hawaii as Commander, Naval Base Hawaii/Commander, Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific. To say that my sister, brother, and I were excited would be an understatement.
I was able to come home to Quarters C on Hale Alii Avenue on the Pearl Harbor Naval Base during holidays and summer vacations. I also did my first-class midshipman cruise on a ship in Pearl Harbor, which allowed me to spend most of the summer in Hawaii and also have the opportunity to attend my father’s retirement ceremony.
It was hard not to fall in love with Hawaii. The warm culture, so grounded in the sense of Ohana (family), combined with the natural beauty, magnificent weather, and ancient connection to the sea, made the time our family spent together there so special. The experience certainly made we wonder if a tour in Hawaii would be part of my future. For the first 28 years of my career, Hawaii eluded me, but then lightning struck again.
‘YOU’RE KIDDING ME,’
In January 2019, I learned I had been selected to flag rank. In March, Vice Admiral Rich Brown informed me that my first flag billet was going to be Commander, Navy Region Hawaii/Commander, Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific. I thanked him for the opportunity and felt I had to ask, “Sir, you know my dad had that job, right?” He responded, “Honestly, Robb, I didn’t, but I am glad you told me.”
Again, I want to make it clear, for any other billet in the Navy, I would have called my wife first! But I called my father and said, “I just found out where I am heading, and you are not going to believe it.” As before, there was a long pause, and I could picture his head shaking as he uttered those familiar words, “You’re kidding me!”
Returning to Hawaii and Quarters C has been an amazing experience. The two hats I wear have allowed me to stay connected to the fleet but also involve a great deal of interaction with the local Hawaiian community. I have met so many at both my command and in the community who remember my dad and had similar working and personal relationships with him when he was serving in the role. Agnes Tauyan, for example, was the command public affairs officer when I arrived. Agnes had begun her career at the command 32 years earlier as my dad’s social secretary. She retired last year, thus ensuring that she both began and ended her career with a Chadwick.
This is the second tour in which I have been able to see my dad’s picture on the wall every day, and if I needed any further validation that it is all part of some divine plan, it can be found on a plaque in Quarters C. The plaque has the names of every resident since the house was constructed in 1914 listed in three rows. My dad’s name is in the middle of the second row. My name ended up in the third row, right next to his. Like our commandant tours, our Hawaii tours have involved different experiences and different challenges, but enough remains the same, and it has made sharing two billets with my dad special in ways that are hard to describe.
Looking Ahead, Looking Back
My father retired from the Navy at the end of his tour in Hawaii. I am not retiring, and having received orders to command Carrier Strike Group Nine in San Diego, it could be said that I am stepping out of his footsteps. As I prepare to turn over command of Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific to Rear Admiral Tim Kott, I look with excitement to the future. I feel blessed for the opportunity to command at sea again, to continue to serve in this Navy that I love, and to keep working with the finest people anyone could hope for. While I am stepping out of my father’s direct footsteps for the first time in a while, he will continue be an inspiration.
There have been times, especially early in my career, when I have been sensitive to the family legacy, not wanting anyone to think I was riding coattails. Those feelings were at odds with the fact that one of my greatest sources of pride has been being my father’s son. Over the years, I have received so much positive feedback about my father, from his former shipmates, classmates, former midshipmen, and friends.
One such instance occurred in 1992, during the construction phase of my first ship, the USS Barry (DDG-52), when the ship was visited by Admiral Michael Boorda, who was then serving as Commander in Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe. I was standing watch on the quarterdeck as officer of the deck when he came aboard. He looked at my name tag and asked a question I received many times early in my career: “Are you Steve Chadwick’s son?” When I answered in the affirmative, he said, “Well, if you end up being even half the naval officer as your father, you are going to be in good shape.” Hmm, being half the naval officer of your hero. I can live with that!