World War II, Vietnam, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, Karen Wingeart recounted the impact of each war on her life and career in the naval service as an active duty officer, reservist, and civilian acquisition engineering agent.
“Freedom is not free,” said Wingeart, who manages fielding, training and sustainment support for chemical, biological and radiological (CBR) sensors and drug detection kits used by U.S. Navy boarding teams on 145 ships.
U.S. Navy military and civilian personnel listened intently at the Naval Support Facility Dahlgren base theater where they gathered Nov. 18 - one week after Veterans Day - to pay tribute to all who served and sacrificed in defense of our nation.
“We owe it to our veterans to honor them and their sacrifices, and one way to do that is to preserve their stories,” said Wingeart, a Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) CBR Defense Division employee. “History does tend to repeat itself, and we should learn from our past so we do not make the same mistakes.”
The Navy reserve meteorologist shared several stories honoring U.S. veterans and illustrating the value of American military history and traditions.
“I wanted to be a Sailor,” said Wingeart as she reflected deeply on her family’s military history.
“I come from a family of veterans, but most were Sailors,” she said. “I had two grandfathers who served in World War II - one who served at sea and the other a Navy Chief who served in China and never spoke about what he did. My father served on a carrier during the Vietnam and Cold War era, my aunt was a nurse in the Navy, and my older cousin enlisted as an air traffic controller.”
Wingeart’s stories about veterans’ exploits and sacrifices throughout U.S. military history included sacrifices made by her own classmates and personal friends.
“Early during plebe summer (the U.S. Naval Academy’s version of boot camp), our squad leader took us on a tour through Memorial Hall,” she said. “I distinctly remember stopping to read about Col. John Ripley, USMC in front of the diorama titled “Ripley at the Bridge”.
The diorama at the Naval Academy illustrates bravery and courage under intense fire.
On Easter morning 1972, Ripley repeatedly exposed himself to intense enemy fire over a three hour period as he prepared to destroy an essential bridge in Dong Ha. His actions significantly slowed the advance of 200 North Vietnamese armored tanks into South Vietnam. The story of “Ripley at the Bridge” - legendary in the Marine Corps and captured in the diorama - is required reading for academy students.
“It’s one of many plaques, memorials, and murals inside Bancroft Hall and is one that most alumni remember,” said Wingeart.
The names of alumni killed in action are inscribed under the flag flown during the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812.
“As a midshipman, I read those names and had a sense of awe - not knowing any of them personally, but contemplated how the list would grow, who would be added. I now can say I knew some of those alumni whose names have been added to that list.”
The first female added to the diorama was Maj. Megan McClung, U.S. Marine Corps, class of 1995.
“She was a year ahead of me at the Academy and she used to run with one of the girls in my company,” said Wingeart. “They trained for the Marine Corps Marathon and I can still picture the two of them coming up the stairs after a run, smiling. She was an avid runner, even while deployed. She organized the first Marine Corps Marathon in Iraq. Megan was a public affairs officer deployed with 1 Marine Expeditionary Force in 2006. She was killed when her Humvee struck an IED (improvised explosive device). Freedom is not free.”
Wingeart reported to USS Barry (DDG 52) in February 1997, and the ship got underway the very next day, deploying to the Arabian Gulf.
“Even though I was an engineering officer, I spent most of my watches on the bridge,” she said. “I was the conning officer (responsible for maneuvering the ship) as we transited the Suez Canal, which was a great but somewhat surreal experience. The canal seemed so narrow. You could see the fertile zone in Egypt contrasting with the harsh desert. There were abandoned vehicles and remnants of previous conflicts, a stark reminder that this was most certainly not a pleasure cruise. After transiting the Red Sea, we refueled in Djibouti. Fast-forward a couple of years and we recall another ship that stopped to refuel - not in Djibouti, but in Aden, Yemen.”
The Navy had been using Djibouti as a refueling stop in the Southern Red Sea, but Aden, Yemen was chosen as another option for ships to refuel.
On October 12, 2000, USS Cole (DDG 67) was attacked by a small boat, killing 17 sailors and wounding 39 others. Wingeart’s roommate from college was the navigator at the time.
“After the attack, she escorted 11 of the badly wounded via Medevac (medical evacuation) to a hospital in Djibouti for surgery and treatment,” said Wingeart. “We remember 9/11 every year, but I don’t think the attack on the USS Cole gets the attention those heroic Sailors deserve. Freedom is not free.”
After her tour aboard USS Barry (DDG 52), Wingeart transferred to the Navy’s meteorology and oceanography community.
Upon graduation from the Naval Postgraduate School, she received orders to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, as a Typhoon Duty Officer.
“That’s the Navy’s version of a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center,” said Wingeart. “I called my grandpa and chatted about my next tour of duty. He told me he was proud and recalled Typhoon Cobra - otherwise known as Halsey’s Typhoon. In December of 1944, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Adm. “Bull” Halsey prepared to head back to the Philippines. After the fleet completed three days of strikes off of Luzon, they were ordered to rendezvous with Capt. Jasper Acuff’s Oiler Task Group, and sailed straight into the path of the typhoon. The Fleet needed fuel and tried to rendezvous, but the seas were unforgiving. The destroyers were especially vulnerable due to their small size and armaments. Many did not ballast with seawater since they thought they were going to refuel. The winds increased to over 100 miles per hour and seas built to 100 feet. By the time Halsey issued a typhoon warning, three of his destroyers were lost, USS Hull (DD-350), USS Spence (DD-512) and USS Monaghan (DD-354). Halsey’s Typhoon claimed almost 800 lives - freedom is not free. In the aftermath of the typhoon, the Navy decided to establish a warning center in the Pacific, which eventually became the Joint Typhoon Warning Center. Grandpa passed away just two days after I called him.”
After Wingeart left active duty, she joined the reserves and was recalled back to active duty to support the Army as the executive officer at the confinement facility in Kuwait.
“Our military make many sacrifices,” Wingeart reflected. “We sacrifice time with our family, missing holidays and birthdays, nightmares and temper tantrums, sporting events and injuries. This is true for both the military and our civilians who also volunteer to go overseas to support our warfighters where they work. Our families and loved ones also sacrifice, for they remain behind holding down the fort, so to speak. My husband (a Navy veteran) went on field trips, attended parent teacher conferences, coached little league, and rushed whoever was injured or sick to the doctor. He was the one who had to answer the children when they asked why mommy couldn’t tuck them in at night. Freedom is not free.”
At NSWC Dahlgren Division, veterans represent an important part of the workforce.
“Their military background, including for many - their combat experience - provides critical, real-time problem-solving capability that translates into expertise in finding solutions for tod ay’s warfighters,” NSWCDD Commander Capt. Brian Durant told the audience. “Some of our veterans have even served again in theater as civilians, providing training and direct support to our military not hesitating to go into harm’s way. Like the many veterans we honor on Nov. 11, we are committed to protect our homeland, our freedom, and our way of life by stopping the forces of terrorism. My thanks to all of the NSWC Dahlgren Division workforce - particularly to the veterans among us - for your dedication and support of our warfighters.”