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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Congratulations Capt. Eric Watkiss, USN, (Ret.)

Congratulations Capt. Eric Watkiss, USN, (Ret.)

On July 18, 2011, Ed and I had the honor and pleasure of attending the Retirement Ceremony for our nephew Eric, at the National Reconnaissance Office in Washington, D.C. Eric is retiring as a Captain, which is the Navy equivalent O-6 pay grade to Colonel in the Army, Air Force, and Marines. (Eric's dad was Ed's oldest brother, Lee, who died when Eric was a baby.) We spent two wonderful days with Eric and his wife, Lynne, and their extended family and friends, enjoying the special meals and activities Lynne had prepared.

Meeting and talking with career military officers, and their families, was so impressive! These families are indeed America's Finest. Their priorities are Friends, Family, and Freedom, and their lives of service epitomize the core values of the United States Navy: Honor, Commitment and Courage.

Since the retirement events were held in a secure facility, we submitted our background info a month ahead for security clearances. We went through security screening similar to an airport, and were not allowed to bring in phones, cameras, memory sticks, or any other electronic equipment. (People who work in the building have pagers, and are not allowed to bring cell phones in to work.) After clearing security, we presented our identification, and were given security badges and pin numbers. We were escorted to and from the ceremony and reception venues.

Lynne was escorted to her seat in the auditorium through a doorway that was flanked by sailors. A ship's bell was rung. A Boatswain's pipe, that salutes distinguished visitors, sounded. Eric entered ceremonially, and was welcomed "aboard" for his Retirement Ceremony.

Eric really IS one of those guys who would "have to kill us if he told us" what he did in his job. Much that goes on in the NRO building is "Classified." There was an electronic sign in the auditorium where the ceremony was held that labeled that event "Unclassified."

The Navy's ceremonial traditions are full of history. The retirement ceremony pays honor to shipmates "going ashore for the final time." The ceremony was beyond impressive. Eric's service and accomplishments make him a genuine American hero. Over three hundred people, from several branches of service, with whom Eric served around the world, showed up to honor him.

Eric was attached to the Marines in Iraq. To pay tribute to that assignment, Eric requested that a Marine Color Guard "Parade the Colors." Eric's Master of Ceremonies, Major Chris Michele, with whom Eric serves at the NRO, is USAF.  

Captain Stephen A Burris, U.S. Navy (Ret.), whom Eric met in Monterey at the Naval Postgraduate School, was Guest Speaker. Steve regaled us with personal stories of exploits with Eric both during, and outside of, work. He said that Eric "progressed through the ranks from Ensign to Captain, and was designated as an NFO (Naval Flight Officer.) An NFO is the person who doesn't puke flying in airplanes, is good with maps, is a chart lover, and lives, breathes, and dreams everything aviation."  

Eric spoke humorously of living by the tenets "Stay cool no matter what," and "It's better to die than look bad." He said after a carrier landing, he'd go for "sliders and auto dog" which translates as burgers and ice cream. He jokingly talked about "being safe on deck" while serving in Kabul, Afghanistan.  He then clarified, to chuckles from the audience. "You can't really be safe. It's just an expression."

The Presiding Official, Rear Admiral David A. Dunaway, U.S. Navy, whom Eric also met at the Naval Postgraduate School, summarized how the Navy fits into world events, and thanked Eric for his service. He said, "We definitely live in interesting times. We are blessed to live in a country founded on democracy, individual rights, and the rule of law...The power of the military supports that. We live in the greatest country on the earth--and I've seen a lot of them. Despite our issues, nothing can hold a candle to it. Let's keep our country strong." 

At that point, Eric was presented with numerous commendations, awards, medals, and gifts. As Eric was being presented with a shadowbox containing his sword, medals, and other memorabilia, Captain Chris “Boris” Becker, USN, Commanding Officer of SPAWAR Space Field Activity, who was honoring Eric, observed that the shadowbox doesn't show all the men and women whose lives were saved because of Eric's work in Iraq with IED's (Improvised Explosive Devices.) That thought was both sobering and uplifting. This was just one of the many ways that Eric's service made a tangible difference that saved many lives.

Lynne was recognized as Eric's "right arm." Rear Admiral Dunaway called Lynne the "perfect Navy wife," and observed that "the Navy calls Lynne Eric's dependent, but the opposite is true." Steve observed that he'd never seen a couple more dedicated to supporting each other. With obvious emotion, Eric thanked and honored Lynne for her love and dedication with words, flowers, and a beautiful Navy Pin. Lynne had previously seen and admired the pin, which was designed by Washington, D.C. jeweler, Ann Hand, featuring an eagle over an anchor studded with sapphire crystals. Eric honored his mother, Barbara, and Lynne's mother Lee, with tributes and gifts, as well. Eric also recognized the sacrifice and loss of Lynne's brother in Vietnam. Eric presented his Dad, Phil, with the boatswain's pipe used during the Retirement Ceremony in a keepsake wooden box, and thanked his Dad for his service in Vietnam.

The final portion of the ceremony was called "Permission to Go Ashore." It began with the words, "For the past 25 years, this shipmate has stood the watch while we slept." After Eric asked for, and received, permission to go ashore for the final time in his Navy career, the master of ceremonies said, "Shipmate, the watch stands relieved.  The fleet has the watch." Eric departed ceremonially, flanked by sailors, after the sound of the bell and the Boatswain's pipe. Lynne was escorted out through the honor guard as well. I don't believe there was a dry eye among the 300+ attendees, after such a moving ceremony. 

As of August 1, Eric will be officially retired after 25 years of service to our country. Eric is a rocket scientist (really!). He has a degree in Aerospace Engineering from Georgia Tech, and a Master of Science in Aeronautical Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School. His tour at NPS included a thesis on flight test of an Unmanned Air Vehicle, and winning the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics national Masters-level team aircraft design competition. (Eric's team named their plane after the Emu, a flightless bird!)

Eric received his wings in 1988 in Pensacola, where he met his future wife, Lynne. He began training as an Electronic Countermeasures Officer in Pensacola, then transferred to Whidbey Island, WA., and from there went on to many other locations. Eric and Lynne have made 11 moves to 11 homes in 23 years.

Eric was selected for test pilot school on his first try. He attended the US Naval Test Pilot School at NAS Patuxent River, MD. He was a test pilot at Strike Test squadron at NAS Patuxent River, MD for a year, then returned to the Navy Test pilot School  as an instructor, where he was selected for Aerospace Engineering Duty Officer. In 1998, Eric joined the Naval Weapons Test Squadron at NAS Point Mugu working on the Tomahawk Cruise Missile Program. He left Point Mugu to join the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)  For more information, you may want to look at the Official Navy Website and SPAWAR (Space And Naval Warfare Systems Command).

Eric served on both the USS Carl Vinson and USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carriers. Eric shared that, ironically, he served more time in the desert than on the seas. Eric learned to "Listen, Learn, and Lead," and the value of utilizing the power of combined forces, while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, there were "few safe roads, it was over 7,000 feet above sea level, hard to breathe, and people shoot at you."

Eric has 167 carrier landings. He has flown over 2000 hours in 50 different aircraft types, including the  EA-6B Prowler, F-4 Phantom, F-14 Tomcat, F-18 Hornet,  and P-3 Orion.

You'll have to trust me that the accomplishments I've mentioned are the tip of the iceberg in Eric's exemplary career. Many of the projects with which he has worked are sensitive or classified. I know very little about any of them. I have not even named the projects, because I don't want to compromise our nation's security, or any of our troops who are in harm's way.   

Beyond all of the things that Eric has done, meeting Eric's friends, hearing about their service and accomplishments, and seeing the displays at the NRO, made us overflow with pride and gratitude and patriotism. I don't think the average American has any idea of the sacrifices made by our servicemen and women, and their families, and the ways in which our government is keeping us safe. I know I didn't have a clue, which is why I want to share our experience.

I know from now on I'll be more aware of our service men and women. I'll be thanking them for their service when I have an opportunity, and I'll be a more conscientious, involved, and grateful citizen.

Eric will soon be starting a new job, and will continue to serve our country in the private sector. Congratulations, Eric. Thank you for your service to our country. Thank you, too, Lynne. We're proud of you both.

Below are the video slide show that Lynne put together for Eric's Retirement, and photos of some of Eric's awards and commendations.


  1. Wonderful synopsis of a truly moving event for a most deserving individual.

    .....of course I'm a bit prejudiced - I'm his proud uncle!

    Steve Seaman

  2. Congratulations to a true American hero!


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