SANDY HOOK – Back in their classrooms, back in their routine, and supremely happy with the memories that will last a lifetime, the five cadets at MAST, the Marine Academy of Science and Technology, reflected this week on the honor and pride they felt in serving as the color guard for the christening of the soon-to-be commissioned submarine, the New Jersey (SSN796).
The five students, juniors Tessa Campolattaro of Rumson and Dylan Agnese of Lincroft and sophomores Brandon Weiss of Oceanport, Jack Arhanic of Fair Haven and Sam Puleio of Tinton Falls, were selected by their Naval Science Instructors after members of the crew of the submarine visited MAST and requested their NJROTC unit be part of the ceremony at the shipyard in Newport News, VA. In addition to the five who made the trip, sophomore color guard members Mae Woolley and Jeremy Londono were selected as alternates to ensure a full color guard would be present in case anyone had to drop out at the last minute (a valid fear during these times of COVID).
After traveling by van with Cdr. Tracie Smith-Yeoman, USN (Ret), MAST Senior Naval Science Instructor, and Senior Chief Mike Vaccarella, USN (Ret), MAST Naval Science Instructor, their uniforms, flags, weapons and other equipment, the color guard conducted their final practice at the Huntington Ingalls Industries Shipbuilding facility where thousands would be attending the ceremony the following day. The group used the additional time to tour the Norfolk Naval Station before the next morning’s 11 a.m. ceremony.
While all five said their biggest fear in performing their color guard duty was “messing up a movement in front of the audience,” or “in front of live television,” Campolattaro, who carried one of the ceremonial rifles, put it differently: “I didn’t have any fear, although I was nervous…”
The five all said they were surprised at several of the things and places they saw on the trip, with Puleio most surprised at all the ships he got to see at Naval Station Norfolk, which is the largest naval base in the world, and Agnese saying the fact he could meet Governor Phil Murphy, one of the speakers at the event, was his greatest surprise. “That was something I was not thinking I would be able to do. Shaking his hand is something I will remember for a very long time.” Agnese agreed with Puleio that seeing the Navy base and the ability to “see all the aircraft carriers and Ospreys (a type of aircraft) will be a long-lasting memory. It was amazing to see how large and impressive they are.” For Weiss, he was most surprised at “how much we were appreciated at the ceremony and outside it as well. Most people were very appreciative of us and respectful.” For Arhanic, the number of people who were present for the ceremony was the biggest surprise, from public officials at the local, state and national levels to the thousands of shipbuilding employees and their families. “I wasn’t expecting such a large crowd,” he said. Campolattaro was surprised and happy to see the “sheer number of people, but was surprised when she got to see “the inner-workings of the military. Being in the shipyard, seeing naval bases and everything that goes with that was something I had not fully anticipated. Nor did I have any expectation of what it would be like,” she added. She was also thrilled to meet the ship’s sponsor, Dr. Susan DiMarco of Montclair. “Speaking with her was definitely memorable. She is a lovely person and will be an outstanding sponsor of the submarine.”
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While each of the MAST cadets sought out crew members whom they had met in October when the crew made the familiarization visit to Monmouth County, most could did not identify them in the entire complement of the crew lined up in front of the submarine, and none got to talk to any of them. They all do hope to see them again in the future, and to continue the camaraderie they had developed with the Sailors and Executive Officer when they visited MAST.
In addition to serving as honor guard at a sub’s christening, traveling across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was a new experience for all of them. The crossing, officially named the Lucius J. Kellam, Jr. Bridge-Tunnel, is 20 miles long and has two one-mile long tunnels that interrupt the bridge. It is the only direct link between Virginia’s Eastern Shore and south Hampton Roads, Virginia. The idea that their van was traveling through tunnels while cargo ships and Navy warships transited overhead was a bit jarring but exciting to the cadets.
While each of the five felt honored to be selected for the national recognition, the first event of its kind for any MAST student, all felt every one of their classmates at MAST who are in the color guard could also have done a superb job in the ceremony. Puleio said that “all the Naval Science Instructors and cadets work together towards the goal of bettering our unit and making ourselves the best we can be.” Weiss credits his being part of the team that presented colors at the unit’s Annual Military Inspection earlier this school year, but also feels his color guard movements, high personal integrity and commitment also led him to be part of the team. Agnese, who commanded the team, added his own experience during the guard since he was selected at the end of his freshman year helped him get selected.
“This was such an exciting opportunity for our cadets, and we are incredibly proud of the job they did, and of all of the hard work and practice they put into this event,” said Cdr. Smith-Yeoman. “And though I know Cadets Londono and Woolley were disappointed they didn’t get the chance to go, I am so proud of their teamwork attitude and commitment. And we are really looking forward to more opportunities to interact with the Sailors of the New Jersey in the future. She is OUR sub!”