With our country in an uproar over the upcoming Presidential election, my mother and I packed up our patriotism and flew to California in October 2004, to welcome the Naval Destroyer, USS O’Kane (DDG 77) as it sailed into San Francisco Harbor.

The harbor fog was diminishing in the early morning sun as we spotted the destroyer rounding the bay. The O’Kane cruised beneath the Bay Bridge, and we laughed because the destroyer barely squeezed through, and we waved the small American flags we brought with us from New Jersey for the occasion.

As the ship neared the pier, the enormity of what the vessel represented rendered us speechless.  Pride was overwhelming, too, because both a son and a brother named Donald were aboard. 

My youngest brother, Donald, was the ship’s Command Master Chief and senior Enlisted Advisor to the Commanding Officer, and neither of us had seen him in two years.

The Command History of the USS O’Kane is most impressive. Christened by the O’Kane family and commissioned in Pearl Harbor in October 1999, the ship proudly took her place in the Fleet as a 26th ARLEIGH BURKE Class Destroyer.  More recently, after leaving its Pearl Harbor homeport in January 2003, the O’Kane provided escort of high value shipping and conducted Operation ENDURING FREEDOM Boardings of suspect terrorist vessels in Middle Eastern waters.  The ship was then ordered to rapidly transition into combat operations in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.  At the 'tip of the spear', the O’Kane successfully projected combat power ashore with salvoes of Tomahawk cruise missiles, which our Nation viewed on television in March 2003 as it actually happened.

Our reunion was sweet as the three of us explored San Francisco, but nothing prepared us for the tour Donald had prepared for us aboard the O’Kane.  Security was tight with the Coast Guard surrounding the ship, but because we were the family of a Command Master Chief, we were soon walking the gangplank as guests of honor, feeling we truly belonged and sporting our VIP passes like the ones the Press wear at the Oscar Awards.

With my brother as guide, we began our education at that pier side as we boarded the vessel, and began to learn how the destroyer functioned in every capacity. There were 360 men and women on board, and Donald knew each of them by name, both personally and by rank.  He explained the dangerous way the ship refuels in the ocean with another huge fuel ship, the crew’s daily routines, and how they perform their tasks.  He pointed out the weaponry, including the Tomahawk launch sites, described how they functioned, and invited us to view the communications area.  We were even able to take turns sitting at the wheel at the highest level of the ship and see the cramped quarters where the Sailors take their meals and rest.

The duties involved with maintaining the destroyer seemed amazingly complicated; yet while the Sailors seemed very modest regarding the trials they endure while at sea protecting the United States’ interests, they are serious, dedicated men and women who strive to operate to their fullest capacities, and the strongest team of professionals I’ve ever met.  Also apparent was each Sailor we were introduced to held an affectionate and respectful regard for my brother.  We were even presented to a Senior Chief, who’d been serving on the USS Cole the day it was bombed by terrorists in Yemen, and whose hand I reverently shook.

The following evening we attended a reception on board the O’Kane, in honor of Mrs. Ernest O’Kane, the widow of Rear Admiral Richard H. O’Kane, a World War II hero and the ship’s namesake.  This event also coincided with the ship’s christening anniversary and acceptance into the Navy, some years back.

A canopy on the deck sheltered us from fickle San Francisco breezes and two dolphin ice sculptures dominated the elaborate buffet.  After the O’Kane family received their gift presentations, we enjoyed a first class buffet prepared by the ship’s chefs, and we met with the O’Kane family and the high-ranking enlisted men and women invited to the affair.  The best was yet to come, however, because at the reception’s conclusion, my brother would be participating in another ceremony, which was entirely personal.

Mom and I were filled with enormous pride as my brother reenlisted for another tour of duty and received the American flag.  The Commanding Officer paid tribute to Donald’s service aboard the O’Kane, and my brother expressed his thanks to all in attendance.  Donald then requested our mom step to the podium, where she was presented with a Certificate of Appreciation from the United States navy for “her unselfish, faithful, and devoted service during her son’s naval career, which helped make possible her son’s lasting contribution to the Nation.”

When Donald gestured for me to join he and Mom, the CO presented me with my own Certificate of Appreciation from the Navy, and a kaleidoscope of pleasure filled my soul.

The O’Kane experience is one I will always cherish and remained one of my mother’s fondest memories until the day she passed, in June 2009.  Tucked in her coffin was one of the tiny American flags we brought with us to welcome the O’Kane to the States during the vacation of a lifetime.

Have a great Navy day!
Re:  My brother’s service aboard the USS O’Kane concluded November 2004.  He then reported for duty at an air squadron in Oahu, Hawaii and was deployed to many undisclosed locations after 2006.  Donald has toured the world participating in dangerous missions he is unable to share with the family and will retire his command in Pearl Harbor July 2011. 

* Then Don became my Wedding Planner Extraordinaire, but that's another story!