12/07/07 — Navy Commander Mike Wegman serves to keep his children safe and free

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Navy Commander Mike Wegman serves to keep his children safe and free

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on December 7, 2007 1:45 PM

Mike Wegman could tell you about the end of the world.

The young sailor dreamed it nearly every night during his stint on a Cold War-era submarine.

"We were a fast-attack submarine. So, we didn't go out there and hide. We went out there, and if we heard a sound, we checked it out. It was really exciting for a teenager," he said. "But I can remember as a young man being very, very intimidated. There were many nights when I would be lying in my little rack, worried about what we were going to surface to find.

"You just never knew," he added. "Were you going to surface to find, 'Hey, it's all gone?'"

But the Goldsboro native shed those fears more than a decade ago when he traded in a life at sea for one as a father and husband.

He didn't leave the Navy.

You can't just walk away from the desire to serve, he said.

But moving from the active duty to the Reserves gave him more time to focus on a mission he feels is as important as defending the home front -- raising his girls to appreciate a country he defended during those nail-biting missions aboard the USS Bluefish.

"Patriotism is not inherent. It's a learned thing. As such, it has been a pleasure for me to help my girls learn to be patriotic," Wegman said. "I don't expect them to automatically wave the flag. I just don't. I expect them to do as I did -- learn why America is so great."

Wegman himself did not realize it until after time spent in the service -- not even when as a crying boy he reunited with an Air Force father home fresh from Vietnam.

It took him 16 years at sea, scuba diver school, a tour as a professor and two post-active-duty deployments in support of operations in the Middle East to "really get it," he said.

Or maybe, it came with the knowledge that only America could pull him away from his Eastern Wayne High School sweetheart turned wife, Carolyn, and their two girls.

It was late-2002.

Wegman had been out of the active duty for more than a decade when the phone rang.

He was just a "40-something father" painting his house when 13-year-old Courtney approached him.

"She said, 'Dad, there is someone from the Navy who wants to talk to you,'" Wegman said. "I thought, 'Well, that's weird.' And so I answered the phone. ... He said, 'This is the call.' We all know about the call."

The United States was gearing up for continued response to the 9/11 attacks.

Wegman said he knew the stakes.

"I'm motivated by many different things," he said. "But when I look at my children, I'm motivated by the fact that nobody is going to come over here and tell my kids how to live. I'll be dead before I allow that to happen."

So, without knowing his final destination, he left Wayne County three weeks later with a heavy heart -- but a determined one.

"It was extraordinarily difficult," he said. "I transferred from the active duty into the Reserve component, primarily because of those girls. But this is what I do. I serve."

He ended up in Hawaii, commander of the Pacific Fleet bound for locations near the Middle East.

"We were handling a lot of the logistics, preparing for war," he said. "I mean, it was late-2002. We went to war in early-2003. All of the commands across the world, in some way, had to either directly or indirectly support this big thing we knew was going to transpire."

Wegman's charge was to plan the routing of 69 ships and to keep them safe -- to avoid a USS Cole-like tragedy.

And while his life was never in danger, the 48-year-old will tell you that assignment changed the way he thought about freedom.

"It's a very stark reality check," he said about jogging past the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor daily. "It was a very solid reminder for me of the role each of us plays in demanding that our country be secure. And again, it's post-9/11. So, Pearl Harbor attack, 9/11 attack, it's all very fresh."

So when his country called again last September, he didn't fight it.

"Three years after Hawaii, the Navy once again called," Wegman said. "My knees are 49 years old. So I'm thinking 'I don't know if they need to be trouncing around the mountains of Afghanistan.'"

In reality, he was destined for the Kuwaiti Desert.

And for a year, he commanded the only Theater Field Confinement Facility in the world.

Leaving was easier this time because the girls understood, Wegman said.

"They said, 'Dad, we know this is something you need to do,'" he said. "They said, 'This is why you serve.'"

So when arrived at the prison for American soldiers accused of war crimes and other offenses, he showed up with a renewed commitment to set an example worthy of his own children -- to do the job the best he knew how.

"We think about waving the flag and all the salutes and the good looking uniforms, but we don't think about the fact that if we send a quarter of a million people over there, give them guns and tell them to kill people, guess what? Crimes are going to happen," Wegman said. "So it's important to have a place in theater to get those people out of there quickly so they don't damage the morale of their units."

It was not his job to judge, but to create a top-notch facility worthy of an American citizen -- alleged criminal or not.

And that is just what he did, according to a memorandum issued by the Department of the Army.

But remember, Wegman thinks like a father first.

So he will call witnessing the "personal growth" of the troops under his command his most rewarding achievement -- perhaps, of his nearly 30-year career.

"Our troops over there are the greatest fighting force in the world," he said. "And as far as mine go, they might not have been on the front lines, but they were providing a valuable service. This facility was an asset.

"I wasn't the one who accomplished those things, they were," he added. "And the strides they made as people, it was a special thing to witness. The ones who wanted to save money saved money. The ones who wanted to lose weight lost weight. Some wanted to earn college credits. ... Those are the types of things that are extraordinary."

So he came home from the desert fully aware of what makes America great, he said.

And now, he will continue to fulfill his other missions -- father, husband, Reserve and teacher -- at least until the next call.

"If they call me, perhaps when they call me, I'll go," Wegman said. "Once again, it's what I do."

But if that phone never rings and his days in the Navy run out without additional tours or promotions, the commander said he would be able to walk away proud.

After all, it only takes a look back at his latest deployment and on those nights aboard the Bluefish for him to remember why America is worth fighting for.

"It was never about the rank. It was about the quality of the service," Wegman said. "I just happened to be very blessed to have had an awesome and diverse career. It's taught me a lot about the strength of this nation."