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Nov. 10, 2013
By Steve Wieberg, contributing writer
They were shooting a round of golf over the Father’s Day weekend. Sam Mason was with Mike Lehman, his old Northwest Missouri State University roommate and fraternity brother.
“We got paired up with this other twosome, a guy and his son,” Mason remembers. “And as we’re playing along, the guy says, ‘Well, what do you do, Mike?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I’m in the Navy.’
“And that was it.”
Mason still is struck by the exchange. Imagine Stephen King simply telling someone, “I do a little writing.”
Start with the decorated 24 years Lehman has spent in a U.S. Naval uniform – most notably as an officer aboard five different ships ranging from guided missile frigates to a destroyer to a Nimitz-class, nuclear-powered super carrier. He commanded the destroyer. On the 100,000-ton, 4,600-man carrier, he was the man in charge of two onboard nuclear reactors.
Five times, Lehman and his crewmates deployed to the Persian Gulf and Western Pacific. They safeguarded waters against Somali pirates. They rushed aid to a Japanese coastline ravaged by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
In between, Lehman had stops at the Pentagon and Pearl Harbor.
And note his current assignment as a Navy Captain: chief of staff to a two-star general at Offutt Air Force Base just south of Omaha, overseeing the daily operations of a staff of almost 200 that helps plan and implement national security strategy.
“Honestly,” says Lehman, a 1989 Northwest graduate who signed on with the Navy’s nuclear power program a year before graduation, “I had no idea what I was getting myself into. No idea on earth.
“I never thought they would want me to be a part of the program. I didn’t think I was the right caliber of person. I kind of went along with it.”
Up to then, he’d envisioned life in a high school classroom, teaching math or physics or both.
It was Northwest physics professor James Smeltzer who rerouted him. Coming off a summer sabbatical on a Navy ship, Smeltzer began pitching its nuclear power program to the gifted junior physics major he advised. Lehman laughed it off at first, he says. He’d grown up in Colorado Springs, Colo., the picturesque Air Force Academy visible from his bedroom, but he wasn’t drawn to the Air Force. And he certainly had no interest in the Navy.
Smeltzer persisted. Lehman had come to Northwest on a modest cheerleading scholarship – very modest, he emphasizes – and after two-plus years was running out of money. He consequently found himself listening to a Navy offer to pay his way through the rest of school and guarantee a job for five years.
He ultimately accepted, went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in physics and moved on to the Navy’s Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I. Lehman was commissioned in the service’s nuclear surface warfare community in 1989.
He tried later to reconnect with Smeltzer, but never succeeded. His professor retired from Northwest in 2003 and died three years later at age 69, leaving Lehman one regret.
“I really owe all of this to Doc Smeltzer, and I never got a chance to thank him for it,” he says.
Lehman blossomed in the Navy and, by 2003, was second in command of the missile frigate USS Ford, overseeing the ship’s day-to-day operations. He went from there to a two-year tour at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., then graduated with distinction from the Naval War College in Rhode Island and picked up a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies.
He was primed for his dream job: commanding officer of the destroyer USS Shoup, which in Lehman’s 22 months at the helm earned the Battle Efficiency Award, Retention Excellence Award, Surface Warfare Training Excellence Award and Unit Tactics Award. Among other deployments, the 250-man ship did anti-piracy work around Somalia.
From the middle of 2010 to early this year, he was assigned to the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan as reactor officer. Lehman was in charge of both of the ship’s nuclear reactors, its propulsion systems, electrical generation systems, water production systems and all related auxiliary equipment.
“It was absolutely the hardest job that I’ve ever done, and I would venture to say it will be the hardest I’ll ever do,” Lehman says. “From an administration standpoint to records-keeping to proper maintenance to training, the standards are so high that it’s literally a 24-hour-a-day job when we’re out at sea.
“But when you’ve got great people working for you, even the hardest jobs get done. And they get done right.”
USS Ronald Reagan was at sea and due south of Japan in March 2011, when the magnitude 9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck the country, leaving more than 18,000 people dead or missing and triggering meltdowns in three reactors at the coastal Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Ship instrumentation provided some of the first indications of the nuclear problems.
USS Ronald Reagan was lending relief within 48 hours, delivering water, food, clothing, blankets – “anything we could get our hands on,” Lehman says.
“I can tell you that we had every helicopter flying that we could get up. Sailors taking the clothes out of their racks and putting them in boxes to have them delivered on the coast there. It was eye-watering to see just how much our crew wanted to help, to do something to lighten the burden.”
Now, for the time being, Lehman, 46, is about as far from the open sea as he can be, working at Offutt Air Force Base under the U.S. Strategic Command’s Director of Plans and Policy.
He and wife Lynn, an elementary schoolteacher, have a 3-year-old son, James, and Lehman has three older sons living or attending college in Idaho. Life on land is relatively normal, workdays pared to 10 or 11 hours and weekends off.
He has taught at the Naval Nuclear Power School, and done reactor training aboard ship. After retiring from the service, Lehman says he can see himself going back to his original plan and teaching high school.
He made it back to Northwest Missouri State for the first time in a decade and half this summer, playing in a golf tournament.
“I couldn’t have imagined going anywhere else,” he says. “… I was surrounded by a bunch of Midwest folks who had strong work ethic, good hearts, were just down-to-earth people. And I think that really served me well in the Navy, where I was working with people from all over the country and all over the world.”
He was already emerging as a leader in Maryville, serving as president of his Delta Chi pledge class and a couple of years later as president of the fraternity. That’s where he and Mason, a broadcast major who graduated from Northwest in 1988, met and forged a closeness that endures to this day.
Mason has found his own success, working now as a sales executive for the University’s award-winning National Public Radio station, KXCV.
Nonetheless, Mason says, “There’s rarely a time when I’m in some kind of a social circle that I don’t brag about this friend of mine who’s a full Navy Captain. I’m very proud to know him and be his friend.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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