By Lt. Katherine O’Donnell
Assistant Operations Officer, Destroyer Squadron 7
When I received orders to DESRON 7 in San Diego, I never expected 18 months later I would be moving back to the United States from Southeast Asia for shore duty. I had served on board USS Preble (DDG 88) for my first tour, and not only liked life in San Diego, but felt very lucky to serve on such a great ship — I really loved destroyer life. A few months after receiving my second tour orders to DESRON 7, the command forward deployed to Southeast Asia beginning December 2012. I knew in choosing DESRON 7 that my second tour was bound to be different from my first tour, but I didn’t expect such a drastic change from San Diego ship life.
I had been to Southeast Asia during my first deployment on Preble and besides some fun port visits, I vividly remembered the countless merchant, fishing and military vessels underway in the South China Sea—I know the captain lost a lot of sleep with all the contact reports we made during our time there! I hopped on a plane in January 2013, and after a seemingly endless 24-hour journey halfway across the world, I joined the DESRON 7 staff of 20 officers, chiefs and first class petty officers. We had our work cut out for us as we were put to task to stand up the first forward deployed DESRON in Southeast Asia since World War II. The initial mission of DESRON 7, as I understood it, would be to serve as the operational commander for USS Freedom (LCS 1) during her maiden rotational deployment to Singapore, as well as to plan and execute the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) bi-lateral exercise series throughout Southeast Asia.
Our first major task was to assume operational command of Freedom, which arrived in Singapore in mid-April. The proof-of-concept deployment was just getting started and had hit some speed bumps, but the worldwide interest in her deployment to Southeast Asia did not wane. During her first few months in Singapore, she was visited by many U.S. leaders, including the Vice President, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Navy and Chief of Naval Operations, to name a few. The interest wasn’t just limited to the U.S., though; in a short period of time, we had naval leaders from Japan, Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia, among others, visit as well.
It’s no secret that the LCS program has had some challenges — it’s hard for me to forget the long hours we all put in working to get the ship underway from Changi Naval Base. One of the most significant memories I have of Freedom’s deployment here was when she pulled into Kuantan, Malaysia in support of CARAT 2013. She was the first U.S. ship to ever pull pier-side in Kuantan. The difference it makes for a ship to moor pier-side vice being anchored is difficult to describe, but watching the Royal Malaysian Naval Officers walk on board Freedom from a brow, on a pier, on their naval base, was the perfect snapshot of why LCS is a great fit for this region; she can pull into places U.S. Navy ships have never been able to go before, and work side-by-side with ships of similar size and crew.
When I imagined what my job would entail at DESRON 7, I could not have conceived that I would be charged with planning U.S. naval engagements across Southeast Asia. What stands out most to me was my role during Naval Engagement Activity Vietnam in 2014, where I helped plan the first at-sea engagement in recent history with the Vietnamese Navy. It really hit me when I, as a lieutenant junior grade, sat on one side of the table with one other U.S. Navy lieutenant, and was face-to-face with ten senior officers from the Vietnamese People’s Navy. They were looking to me to plan the engagement at sea. It is truly amazing the autonomy and responsibility junior officers in the U.S. Navy are given, and I have my leaders at DESRON 7 to thank for trusting me with this responsibility. The fact I was one of the Navy’s representatives responsible for planning an historic exercise is something I will not soon forget.
The numerous exercises and operations DESRON 7 participated in provided me the opportunity to interact with women from Southeast Asian navies. During CARAT Philippines 2013, a group of junior officers from the Philippine Coast Guard came on board USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62). The Filipino junior officers were all very excited to be on board, but I noticed specifically that the female officers seemed to be more in awe. It turns out that although these women were serving in their coast guard, they had never been underway on a ship. During the few days we were out to sea, I realized how much we had in common, and also how far the U.S. Navy has come with the integration of women in our own force. Exchanges like CARAT are invaluable for sharing many different types of lessons learned, some of which reached beyond those I expected to learn during a naval exercise.
As I reflect back on what DESRON 7 has accomplished during the past 18 months in Southeast Asia, I am proud of the milestones we have achieved as a team. Personally, my tour at DESRON 7 has been a wonderful, challenging and rewarding experience. I had read about the Asia-Pacific Rebalance, but I had never thought that I would be part of a command that so embodied and carried out the ideals envisioned in the policy. I’ve had the opportunity to travel all over this part of the world and I can say that it truly is a dynamic maritime region where the U.S. Navy makes an immediate impact, and I was fortunate enough to see it firsthand.
Lt. O’Donnell detached DESRON 7 in June 2014 and will report to the Chief of Naval Personnel office in Washington, D.C. in July.