High school students step into CO’s boots for a day

Students step into CO's boots.
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© Andrea Howry / Lighthouse
From left, Vanessa Prado, Lt. Cmdr. Shane Tanner of VAW-117 and George Heredia look out of the cockpit of the E-2C aircraft during their tour. © Andrea Howry / Lighthouse

It wasn’t like she didn’t see it, the improvised explosive device in the field, with its trip wires and trigger showing.

It was the other one she didn’t see, the one she set off by remote when she turned away from the first one and crossed into the path of a beam emanating from a fake rock nearby.

A loud bang a few feet away, a burst of smoke and Vanessa Prado, a senior at Hueneme High School, had learned a lesson in current military warfare.

Vanessa, who has received a $180,000 Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship to Norwich University in Vermont, and George Heredia, a junior at Oxnard High School, saw up close how improvised explosive devices work when they served as the Naval Base Ventura County commanding officer for a day on Thursday, May 26.

They also got to climb into both the cockpit of an E-2C surveillance plane and an E-2 simulator and tour an “enemy village” at NBVC Point Mugu.

Both students are with the Junior ROTC programs at their high schools — Vanessa with the Navy and George with the Air Force.

They spent a full morning on base, watching Capt. Jim McHugh conduct quarters and sitting in on his conference call with the commanding officers of other installations in Navy Region Southwest.

They were briefed on the current state of the Navy, learning that it’s the smallest it has been since 1960, and on NBVC itself — a three-site installation at Point Mugu, Port Hueneme and San Nicolas Island that is the No. 1 employer in Ventura County, with 17,000 military personnel and civilians and a $1.7 billion yearly economic impact on the county.

They also learned about some of the other duties of a commanding officer, like protecting endangered species that call NBVC home.

“We have more than 100,000 marine mammals on Naval Base Ventura County, including San Nicolas Island,” McHugh told them. “I never thought I’d be worried about seals and sea lions when I became commanding officer of an installation.”

They also learned that he’s a “landlord” for more than 80 tenant commands on base, from air squadrons to Seabee battalions.

“Any base commander doesn’t control the ships or the aircraft,” he explained. “I control whether the gates are open.”

The commanding officer is the host of dozens of events held on base, including many that are open to the public, from the Haunted Swamp at Halloween to the Admiral’s Cup triathlon.

About 1,200 people work directly for him.

“I try not to micromanage,” he said when asked how he juggles everything. “I empower my people to take care of the problem.”

He told the students early in the morning that he’d try to offer some leadership hints — “You’ll develop your own leadership style as you hear bits and pieces of what you like and don’t like,” he told them — and he had several:

Trust but verify. Delegate, but then check up.

Bring a solution to the table. Don’t push the problem on to a supervisor.

Balance work and family.

Ask questions.

Then came the tour.

They started with the multimillion-dollar E-2 simulator, which had them trying to land the surveillance aircraft on a carrier in bad weather or with engine failure.

A pilot took the controls first. McHugh stood outside the simulator and watched it move gently from side to side with the students inside.

“This gives you a good sense of the procedures involved in flying an aircraft,” he told those watching. “But getting into the actual airplane is where you learn its idiosyncrasies.”

Suddenly, the simulator lurched to one side.

“Now the kids are flying the plane,” he said, smiling. “You can always tell.”

After a few minutes, the students emerged. George was especially proud.

“We almost made it!” he said.

“Almost doesn’t count,” McHugh reminded him.

After heading back to Point Mugu’s Building 1 for the conference call, the students returned to the runway area to climb inside a real E-2C. Lt. Cmdr. Shane Tanner of Carrier Airborne Command and Control Squadron 117 (VAW-117) walked them through the aircraft, then offered his own advice.

“Always choose the harder road,” he said. “Excel in college. Your path starts right now, and remember that you’re already having an impact on the other people around you.”

After that it was on to “Combat Town,” an area on base set up to simulate the living conditions of enemy combatants. Years ago, it was a fake Vietnamese jungle. Today, it’s a village in a desert.

More than 500 students a month come to this area for counter IED training in preparation for deployment to the Middle East.

“We’re always trying to figure out the enemy’s tactics and the best practices to counteract them,” said Andy Martens, site supervisor.

When a new class comes in, Martens and others will bury IEDs with some sort of indicator — some dirt left behind, a wire on the ground — and see how many the students find.

“They never find them all,” he said.

So Vanessa didn’t feel too badly when she missed the fake rock and set off the IED.

That exercise was George’s favorite part of the day.

“I loved the whole day, but when the IED went off, that was scary,” he said.

Vanessa liked the entire base experience.

“I think it’s given me a head start,” she said. “I like seeing how people work in this environment.”

McHugh said he enjoyed meeting two young people who have a strong sense of what they want to do with their lives and are already showing leadership and dedication.

“I’m glad that for half a day we can give them some sense of what’s out there, of the opportunities military life can provide,” he said. “And I hope we’ve made it fun.”

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