Aaron Coffey relaxes between duties at a Naval Reactor station. Coffey will officially retire this Thursday on board the USS Missouri, the battleship which saw the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II. Courtesy photo

ROBERT PIERCE

   • Leader & Times

 

The USS Missouri was launched from the Naval Shipyard in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1944, and the ship played parts in not only World War II, but also the Korean War and Gulf War throughout its half-century career in the world’s waters.

This coming Thursday, a Liberal native will officially retire aboard the historic battleship. Aaron Coffey joined the Navy in November 2000 in the branch’s nuclear propulsion program, with his boot camp taking place in Great Lakes, Ill., at the end of the summer that year.

Prior to that, Coffey finished a year of college, and after boot camp, he went to Charleston, S.C., for about a year of nuclear power school classroom training.

Coffey’s journey would lead him to other places around the globe as well.

“I went to upstate New York for hands on nuclear reactor training,” he said. “I was offered a staff position. I was an instructor for two and a half years in upstate New York training new sailors on reactor and electric plant operations.”

Coffey’s first submarine duty was in 2004 aboard the USS Salt Lake City in San Diego.

“We did a Western Pacific deployment, Arctic operations,” he said. “We took her under the ice in the North Pole. We took some scientists with us who were doing research and gathering data.”

Coffey would return to the East Coast to report to the Naval Shipyards where the Salt Lake City was decommissioned. Needing a new ride, he went to the USS Michigan stationed in Bangor, Wash., where he spend the next 10 years.

“I did a tour at the training facility as an instructor,” he said. “My last tour on a submarine was the USS Nebraska. That ended in 2017. I went to work for the Commander Submarine Forces Atlantic. I was there for four years through the pandemic and came out in 2021 to Pearl Harbor and worked for the Commander Submarine Forces Pacific. I’m the senior enlistment advisor for nuclear maintenance, manning and material readiness for the submarine force in the Pacific fleet.”

Coffey said submarines have not seen much in the way of war action in the last 20 years.

“Any of the submarines I’ve been on have either been involved in reconnaissance stuff,” he said. “We’re out there to support peace time missions, training, but the other half of the submarines I’ve been on have been strategic deterrents, carrying around weapons of consequence that make other countries take a moment of pause before they decide they’re going to attack the United States or any of our allies.”

Coffey said his interest in the Navy came from having several family members in the military.

“My Grandpa Coffey was in France during the D-Day invasion,” he said. “I had a great uncle who was a gunner on a B-17 who was shot down over France about the same time.”

Coffey’s father, Neal Coffey, who still resides in Seward County, was once a volunteer firefighter for the county, and Aaron said watching his family contribute to something greater than themselves inspired and motivated him to participate in something bigger than himself.

“I was always attracted to the Navy,” he said. “I can’t really point to why. I think it was more aviation than anything, going to the air show in Liberal and watching different things throughout my life like the Blue Angels.

A love of aviation took Aaron to a Navy recruiting office, where he said his work in nuclear power began.

“They gave me an exam, and they said, ‘Have you thought about this?’” he said. “I’d never even heard about the nuclear propulsion program. It piqued my interest, and it’s all been nuclear power from there.”

Aaron’s retirement ceremony will take place this Thursday aboard the USS Missouri’s battle museum strip in Pearl Harbor.

“The museum ship has the ability to reserve that space and use it for ceremonies like what my retirement will be,” he said.

The Missouri symbolically is located immediately next to another historic battleship – the USS Arizona – and Aaron explained the symbolism.

“The Arizona was sunk where she lies today with all of the 1,000-plus sailors entombed inside of her from the very beginning of World War II,” he said. “The Missouri where she is today as a museum ship symbolizing the end of World War II because the USS Missouri, the battleship, was where the signature of the declaration from the empire of Japan occurred. It’s very symbolic with those two ships being right next to each other in Pearl Harbor.”

One of the officers who will be on hand for Aaron’s retirement ceremony is now the commanding officer of the commissioned USS Missouri. Aaron said he finds the chance to retire on such a historic ship humbling.

“We look at ships like that compared to what we’re in today, we enjoy a lot of creature comforts that are afforded to us, whereas most of the ships during that era, to be in an air conditioned space was a luxury,” he said. “It really wasn’t for the people.”

Instead, Aaron said, the air conditioning in those days was meant to keep equipment operating safely.

“Many of the sailors in World War II, the spaces they occupied, worked in, lived in slept in were in the heat,” he said. “Anybody who’s ever been on an island in the South Pacific or any part of the theater during World War II during the conflict with Japan knows it’s hot.”

Aaron said not much has changed with respect to this, but seeing the size of the guns and the shells they used, he said most of that stuff was moved largely by hand.

“They didn’t use cranes,” he said. “To move the shells inside the ship, there was a significant amount of manpower that was involved in that. Today, there’s still some human physical requirements of being a sailor. That’s still substantial. However, the technology difference is significant, and we use that to our advantage. I have a lot of respect for folks who preceded us, especially in submarines during that area.”

Though he has honored by his method of retirement, Aaron said he is feeling a little bittersweet about the experience as a whole.

“There’s a lot left to be done,” he said. “There’s isn’t really a time when a sailor looks at their career and says it’s time to go. There’s always things you’re leaving behind you could’ve done and you could be involved in. There’s a lot of real world that’s happening today.”

Aaron said the U.S. is entering a partnership with the UK and Australia to set up the Australian Navy with Virginia class submarines, which he finds a worthy enterprise. Still, walking away from the military will be tough for the outgoing veteran.

“I have a daughter who graduated from high school and will transition to college,” he said. “There’s really no place for me to be where I could be close to her where she’s going to go to college. My son starts high school next fall.”

With 24 years in the books in the Navy, Aaron said he has served a pretty significant amount of time.

“That transition allows us to bring some stability to our family and keep us close, but also brings us back to the mainland of the United States and closer to our parents and siblings,” he said.

While leaving the Navy’s nuclear program, Aaron’s civilian life will find him doing similar work.

“I will be working at the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Facility in Glen Rose, Texas,” he said. “I will be a sea operations instructor.”

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