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Spartan Spotlight

Bink Skinner

From the sixth grade on I knew I would serve in the Navy. My grandfather, a retired Chief Petty Officer, was a major influence and guiding force throughout my life. Summers and vacations in Jacksonville, Florida always included frequent trips to NAS Jax, NAS Cecil Field, and Mayport for runs to the commissary and skeet shooting. He had flown Avengers off the Enterprise during World War II, Super Constellations in hurricanes, and competed on the Navy and US National skeet teams and was still a competitive shooter during those days. Many of his shooting buddies were still active duty and would arrange tours of the wide variety of aircraft and ships. I was always in awe of the power, projection, and traditions of the Fleet and new being part of that was my future. Asheboro, a small central North Carolina mill town (furniture and textiles), was a quiet area to attend school where I wrestled and participated in a wide range of academic extra-curricular activities, outdoor activities, and Scouting. Central North Carolina provided excellent access to the outdoors and we spent many days camping, hunting and fishing.

August following High School graduation, I reported to the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, a place that would become another hometown. This began four years of shining shoes and brass (probably too much time spent on this), studies (probably not enough time spent on this), playing rugby (probably too much time spent on this), SCUBA diving, and establishing life-long friendships over more than a few beers (definitely too time spent on this). USS Joseph Hewes (FF-1078) during my Senior Summer Cruise cemented my thoughts on the surface fleet. If I was going Surface Warfare, it would be a Tin Can. I felt at home with the tight crew and wardroom, much like my cadet company, and the sense of shared mission during underway and in-port evolutions. She was a tight ship that had recently returned from a UNITAS cruise, unfortunately that meant she would stay pretty close to her homeport of Charleston. I returned from summer training to complete my senior year. In May we completed a week of graduation parades, receptions, and pre-commissioning activities. We also received orders, with caveats to remain at the Citadel for 1 week prior to reporting to our initial commands and training assignments. I received orders to USS THORN (DD-988), homeport, Charleston. On the morning of the 16th of May 1987. I joined my classmates wearing our Full Dress cadets uniforms, first in Summerall Chapel, then on the South end of the Parade Deck for commencement. All Navy and Marine option cadets made to point to say “parade deck” vice “parade ground” just because… It was a bright and hot early summer Charleston morning when we crossed the stage receiving our diplomas and firm congratulatory handshakes from Major General Grimsley, Colonel Richards, and Colonel Dick. Our degrees were conferred and our class dismissed in a sea of flying white hats. It was a surging time in the Cold War, over 60% of our class received commissions. After quick pictures everyone raced back to the barracks for a last uniform change into the dress uniforms of their respective services for commissioning. My grandfather administered the oath and my mother pinned on my shoulder boards. It was a great day, and I was about to find out how little I knew.

I reported to USS THORN to discover I would be assigned as Damage Control Assistant (DCA) after completing Surface Warfare Officers School (SWOS), Engineering Officer Of the Watch (EOOW) and Damage Control courses at Newport, RI. Those schools would wait until September, until then, I’d have three months as assistant DCA learning the ship. Fortunately THORN had a great Captain, Jack Martin, who loved driving a destroyer. It was his ship and he wanted his J.O.s to conn through the gambit of maneuvers. After Rhode Island and Advanced Firefighting in Philadelphia, I returned to THORN just in time for post deployment maintenance availabilities, upgrades, training and certifications…with multiple Caribbean counter-narcotics operations included. I had a great collection of Hull Technicians (HTs-welders and pipe fitters), Damage Controlmen, and Machinery Repairmen under two excellent and complimentary Chiefs. I followed my grandfather’s advice, mostly, and did what they said while learning the skills needed for Engineering and Surface Warfare qualifications. During this time the fleet received an influx of modernized repair and firefighting equipment. The upgrades resulted from lessons learned (or mistakes repeated) from the Falklands War (HMS Sheffield) and the recent USS Stark missile attacks as well as the USS White Plains fire. Everything from thermal imagining devices for firefighters in smoke filled spaces (high tech…also good for spotting weak areas in pipe lagging) to flame and temperature retardant fire suites (I’m short…never fit), to hydraulic jaws of life/cutters (just fun). On the downside, we also owned the shipboard sewage system…you can guess how that goes with 300+ sailors. We retrained and requalified during Refresher Training at lovely Guantanamo Bay (GITMO), Cuba in preparation for our upcoming Mediterranean deployment with the USS FORRESTAL Battle Group. I also got to fight my first significant shipboard fire, quick clue, training works.

Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston on 22 Sep 1989. All ships, except 1 sub that submerged into the Cooper River pluff mud, sortied North off North Carolina. We still got pounded by 50 foot seas and took some damage. Charleston Harbor was damaged to a state not seen since the Civil War. All harbor markers and buoys were gone or moved, pier and maintenance facilities were trashed, and the channel had shifted. We pulled into Mayport for pre-deployment repairs. More concerning to our sailors, many of their homes including Navy housing had been damaged or destroyed. Charleston Navy Base began coordinating temporary housing for families, however, we were in Mayport. The Captain and XO directed me to drive to Charleston and coordinate efforts with our crew’s families. I stopped by my grandparent’s house, picked up a chainsaw, water containers, and other supplies (essentially anything they said to take) then headed north to Charleston. I had a list of crew dependents with contact information and addresses. I made contact starting with the most junior who had the youngest children. We got them the highest priority for housing and temporary hotel rooms, delivered children’s supplies and anything else needed. In the meantime, USS FORRESTAL suffered a large fire in an ammo elevator, delaying the Battle Group’s departure.

The MED 1-90 deployment began with a high speed (25 knot) transit with FORRESTAL and an oiler to meet the outbound carrier west of Rota, vice inport as originally planned, then we rejoined the rest of the ships of the battle group for the first of a series of NATO and Allied exercises. It was a great first deployment, all JO’s earned their Surface Warfare “SWO” designations and many also received the Ship’s Weapons Controller (SWC) quals. THORN participated in operations ranging from the Gulf of Sidra (playing a long game of tag with the KIROV), to running the Dardanelles and Bosporus in heavy fog, to the Black Sea and screening Presidential negotiations on Malta. We also enjoyed ports ranging from St. Cyr-su-Mer, Villafranche, Haifa, Alexandria and, of course, Naples. We departed a tight, efficient crew…with the Battle E. THORN returned to Charleston, still recovering from Hugo, and after a two month Caribbean counter narcotics patrol, into drydock. On August 2nd 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait, THORN was still in the shipyards but, my I had the end of my first tour on the horizon in the November/December timeframe.

A call to my detailer revealed that orders were no longer a negotiation and I was going to Maritime Prepositioning Ships Squadron Two (MPSRON 2), normally homeported in Diego Garcia, BIOT. They, and all the prepo ships were now in the Arabian Gulf. The squadron staff was redesignated/codesignated Military Sealift Command Southwest Asia (MSC-SWA) supporting Central Command Operations. I arrived in Bahrain In late November. The build-up of the largest coalition force since World War II was in full swing. The command was coordinating the movement of over 200 ships globally supporting missions ranging from direct support to the growing fleet (logistics), to aviation maintenance, hospital ships, port operations, amphibious operations, and the transportation of every manner of military equipment and supplies. We operated multiple ports and facilities including Bahrain, Jubail, Damman, and Mishab (a few miles below Kafji). We also coordinated the movement of civilian mariners in and out of the area for MSC contracted ships. Following combat operations, I assessed Kuwaiti ports for potential use backloading our forces. To say they were unusable is a tremendous understatement. Burst oil pipes, sewage, mines, ordinance, booby traps, and a sunken OSA II missile boat put a halt to that thought. Everything went back through Saudi or other southern ports. We reconstituted the MPSRON and headed to Diego Garcia. I had no idea how much impact that part of the world would have on the rest of my life.

The trip south to Diego Garcia, BIOT took us across the equator. Our Commodore, being a traditional Shellback, held a traditional ceremony. Three big takeaways 1) Being a pollywog is right there with being a knob at The Citadel, 2) Glad there was no social media, 3) I will forever hate balut. We stopped in the Seychelles, favorite tropical paradise…ever, then made our way to the “Footprint of Freedom.” While D-Gar, we concentrated on the reconstitution of our prepositioned force, squadron operations, and the material readiness of cargo. This meant underway exercises and readiness inspections of everything from M1 tanks to offshore petroleum distribution systems to ordinance. We prepared for their next deployment.

In February 1992 I departed the Indian Ocean for shore duty, as a Navy ROTC instructor at the Citadel. Being one of the single guys in the unit I took on a few extra duties, a company TAC officer (including my old home, Alpha company), Summerall Guards Advisor, Navy sailing instructor with 41 foot sailboat, and coach to the rugby team. I also reconnected with classmates in time for our 5 year reunion. There, I ran into an old buddy, a few weeks later, he let me know a friend of his needed a date for a Christmas party, and that blind date is the short version of how I met Maria. We shared a lot of common interests, sailing, SCUBA diving and others and hit it off. It seemed like a short time before I was heading to back to Newport for Department Head school. I was selected for the engineering track.

It was a long, cold winter leading to a Charleston wedding on 27 May. Two days after the wedding, Maria joined me at Great Lakes for a week then we drove Charleston, packed out and across country to San Diego. We had three days to find housing then I was off to Surabaya, Indonesia and USS RENTZ (FFG-46). Two months later Maria joined me in Townsville, Australia for a five day honeymoon, then back underway to complete our deployment.  RENTZ was another great ship with a fantastic crew, chief’s mess and wardroom. The almost two year tour wrapped up too quickly, with another Battle E. Then back across country to Mayport and USS VICKSBURG (CG-69). It was a major command and while she was the most capable combatant I served on, she didn’t have the same feel as a frigate and destroyer. That said, the ops officer and I became quick allies and long time friends. As an AEGIS TAO I learned more area air defense, maritime operations, strike warfare, and the practical employment of Naval Forces than anywhere else. I also learned more about the eccentricities and prioritization within the fleet. While returning from deployment in the Mediterranean Sea and Arabian Gulf, the electrohydraulic servo valve for our port shaft failed. They would not priority ship our part as we were departing which forced me to maintain an additional watchstander. By now Maria worked for Delta Airlines, our port engineer brought her the part and she delivered it to me in Bermuda (along with her dad for a Tiger Cruise).

That tour ended with a transfer to US Central Command at MacDill AFB in Tampa. I thought it would be a time to recharge as an exercise planner, I was wrong. Once I arrived I was shifted to naval ops and ops planning as the only AEGIS and Tomahawk qualified staff member. Then Rear Admiral (later Vice Admiral) Nichols said to get comfortable fast, we were going to be busy… the next week Desert Fox kicked-off. CENTCOM (1998-2002) proved an incredibly busy tour with many professional highlights. Operationally, these included strikes and strike planning, NEO in Kenya and Tanzania, USS COLE response (this hit close to home when I learned one of my former VICKSBURG engineers was wounded), DV briefings, and spending time with Maria. September 11th refocused the entire command. Maj Randy Smith, USMC, Col Silver, USAF (DJ2) and I were on the quiet Joint Operation Center floor having coffee and discussing carrier rotations with news feed of the first plane striking the World Trade Center, he called General Franks, who was over the Atlantic, I activated the ops floor and called Fifth Fleet. If you’re interested the best and most accurate recollection can be found in LT. General Michael DeLong’s, Inside CENTCOM. I will always take great pride in those I served with and the actions taken in that response and what followed.

With an involuntary extension, that became an almost four year tour. Payback was a year at Air Force Command and Staff College in Montgomery, Alabama. Almost the entire joint class had participated in Operation Enduring Freedom and learning the multiple perspectives was awe inspiring. A number of the instructors had a difficult time accepting that detailed doctrine had not been strictly followed. Those discussions were…interesting (yeah that’s it). We were able to leverage Maria’s flight privileges for a few great trips and at the end of that tour our daughter Ashley came into our lives. Negotiating orders was an interesting exercise but, eventually resulted in an assignment to (then) Joint Task Force Computer Network Operations (JTF-CNO) close to the Pentagon. My planned assignment was to integrate those operations into more traditional military operations.

JTF-CNO was a new world and a new paradigm. Our commander, MG David Bryan, US Army understood that this was not a comms issue, it was an operational issue. The largest challenge, initially, was that this arena had been a) highly classified and b) confined to the intelligence and communications arena. The operational and command communities did not appreciate the impact on traditional warfighting disciplines…until their cyber infrastructure failed. That became my challenge as our mission are shifted to a more defensive focus and I became the Chief of Current Operations. Soon JTF-CNO matured into Joint Task Force-Global Network Operations (JTF-GNO) and absorbed a portion of the DISA DoD network management function. This was part of a larger US STRATCOM effort to improve the integration of certain DoD Agencies and “encourage” better integration with Combatant Commanders. I was blessed to work alongside truly strategic cyber leaders including Gary McAlum, Jeff Brown, and Mike VanPutte. Our leaders, including Lt Generals Raduege and Croom along with RADM Height encouraged technical training and outreach with operational commanders and forces, especially those whose commands had fallen victim to the latest worms/viruses or been targeted by what is now identified as Advanced Persistent Threat. Briefing a high level commander that they, or their commands were “hacked” and that it was usually due to a poor security practice on their end can be an interesting endeavor… With our growth I transitioned to the Chief of Network Defense then finally Deputy Director of Operations. It was a truly fulfilling time capstoned by the birth of our son, Cooper.

My active duty time was coming to a close, unless I went back to sea in a traditional field, and I had a choice to make. I retired in 2007 to stay in cybersecurity. I supported and managed efforts with the ODNI CIO’s office, including a portion of the Comprehensive National Cyber Initiative and the effort to improve cyber integration across the Intel Community. I also managed the stand-up of the Intel Community’s Security Coordination Center. Most importantly, I focused on our kids and family. We stayed in Northern Virginia and through a series of events, I settled at Invictus International working with a talented team focused on the security of our next generation of air traffic control systems at FAA. I appreciated the company values, direction, and leadership expressed through Invictus CEO, Jim Kelly, and President, Jamie Navarro. The company felt like an odd combination of a tin can and an extended family. I was at home.

As Ashley and Cooper grew, they and I became active in Scouting (Girls and Boys). I assisted Ashley’s troops learning about emergency preparedness and outdoor skills, Maria became a cookie manager (she really loves our kids!). On Cooper’s side, I became an Assistant Scout Master and our Troop’s Eagle Advisor. Cooper and I have enjoyed adventures at Philmont Scout Ranch (12,440 foot Mt. Baldy and a conference call with Jim and Jamie), Florida Sea Base, and a Northern Tier canoe trip. I’ve had the privilege to guide many inspiring youths. This restores my faith in our future generations and our American foundations. It has been a great ride to the Gates, and it will continue.