Mar 10, 2014 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff WriterThe day after he graduated from Riverton High School in 1989, Michael Conner left Fremont County to join the U.S. Navy.
"I realized I wasn't a very mature guy at the time," Conner said of his decision. "I wasn't ready to go off to college, (but) I wanted something else to do. ... That was my master plan: find something to keep me busy for a couple of years, get a little life experience."
Almost a quarter-century later, Conner has risen through the ranks of the Navy to take command of the U.S.S. Oklahoma City, a nuclear-powered submarine homeported in Guam.
He became the boat's commanding officer Dec. 20 during a pier-side ceremony on Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego.
"It was, in a lot of ways, surreal," Conner said. "You walk on the boat just being another Navy guy. Then three quarters of the way through the ceremony there is an absolute transferring of authority."
He described the experience as both humbling and daunting. On a submarine at sea, Conner pointed out, sailors can't simply call the base for help if something goes wrong.
"Everything that happens is my responsibility," he said. "There is some communication, but ... mostly it's the boss (talking) to us, and almost all they send us once we're gone is a recommendation, because they don't actually know what we're doing, or where we are, or what the situation is."
From the ground up
He feels prepared for the post, however, based on his 25 years of training in the Navy.
Conner was an enlisted machinist's mate and engineering laboratory technician for six years after he left Riverton, and he said the experience helped him focus on his goals.
"The initial training gave me something to apply myself to," he said. "A year after I joined I was working on an operational nuclear reactor. ... I knew right then I'd never have this opportunity anywhere else."
Soon, he was selected to participate in the Nuclear Enlisted Commissioning Program, through which sailors finish college before becoming officers. Conner earned his bachelor's degree in 1994 from the University of Idaho in Moscow, then headed to Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Fla. Later, he earned a master's degree in organizational leadership from Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and in 2012 he got another master's degree in national security studies from the National War College in Washington, D.C.
He also served numerous sea tours, working as an electrical assistant, main propulsion assistant, chemical and radiological controls assistant and communicator on the U.S.S. Kentucky, where he completed five strategic deterrent patrols.
Conner and his team earned three battle efficiency awards when he was an engineer on the U.S.S. City of Corpus Christi. They also completed the first change of homeport for a nuclear powered submarine to Guam and the first Guam deployment cycle.
Conner earned another battle efficiency award when he served as the executive officer on the U.S.S. Miami. His staff assignments include a tour as a nuclear command and control instructor at the Trident Training Facility in Georgia.
He also was the lead maritime planning officer on the staff of the NATO Special Operations Coordination Center and executive officer of the operations directorate at U.S. Special Operations Command in Europe. He was the submarine force readiness officer and director of submarine special operations on the staff of the Commander, Submarine Force Atlantic and deputy commander for readiness at Submarine Squadron 1.
Conner has been joined on the journey by his wife, Rhonda Conner - formerly Rhonda Weber of Riverton - and their three children, Adam, 17, Micah, 14, and Erika, 12. They have moved 23 times in the 24 years that Michael and Rhonda have been married, most recently making the trek from Hawaii to their current post in Guam.
"This is actually our third overseas tour," said Rhonda, who also graduated RHS in 1989.
It's their second time in Guam, too. The Conners lived on the island 2002-2005 when Michael was an engineer on the Corpus Christi.
"We were thrilled to be back," Rhonda said of their return to the U.S. territory last month. "A lot has changed in 10 years, but a lot is still familiar."
She called Guam a "family island" that offers a slower pace of living for people associated with the local Andersen Air Force Base and U.S. Naval Base. The weather isn't bad, either.
"It's about 84-92 degrees year round," Rhonda said. "It's very tropical."
The Conners plan to stay in Guam for about two years while Michael captains the Oklahoma City, one of 41 Los Angeles-class attack submarines now in service, according to the Navy. The boats are equipped with 12 vertical launch system tubes for firing Tomahawk cruise missiles, but Michael said the United States hasn't shot a torpedo "in anger" since 1945.
"I have fired dozens of torpedoes in training, (but they) don't explode in the end," he said.
The U.S.S. Oklahoma City is 360 feet long and 32 feet wide and displaces about 6,000 tons of water. Much of the space is taken up by equipment, however, so Michael said there is only room for about 100 beds to accommodate his crew of 170 men.
"We do a lot of sharing," he said. "We put three guys into one standard Navy rack, which is not quite a twin (bed). It's six feet long and three feet wide. ... It's just a box."
The men take turns sleeping in the bunks while their roommates are on duty, he explained.
The crew also is required to do 30 minutes of physical activity at least three times each week, which can be a challenge due to the limited space. For example, Michael said there is a treadmill on his submarine, but the front console of the machine has been removed.
"(It's) stuck up on the wall beside you because we don't have space for it," he said.
The close quarters lead to a sense of camaraderie among the sailors, who spend months at a time together on the submarine.
"You live so close to people," Michael said. "You spend so much time with them (talking) about your families and about your hopes, dreams, desires, fears. You get to know people really well."
The experience can be similar on land, Rhonda said. While their sailors are gone, Navy spouses come together to support and encourage their community members who may struggle with the separation.
"Everybody is literally in the same boat," Rhonda said. "We're here to be there for each other and help whatever way we can. You do become a very close-knit group."
She will be part of the Guam Naval Officer Spouse Club while she is on the island, and as the wife of a boat's captain Rhonda is part of a family readiness group that also includes the executive officer's wife and the chief of the boat's wife. An ombudsman also is available to handle any crises that occur.
Rhonda has been part of the readiness group in the past, when Michael was executive officer on the U.S.S. Miami, but she took a leadership course last year to prepare for her stint in Guam.
"The executive officer's wife doesn't attend that," she said.
The course focused on team building, group interactions and resources for Navy spouses who have issues with finances or child care, for example.
Michael said it's important that the Navy has an effective support network in place for spouses, who haven't undergone the same training as their sailor husbands.
"For me a sailor is a sailor - they're all individuals, but they're really alike," he said. "Wives are not created alike, and we don't do anything to standardize them like we do sailors. We never train them on what it means to be a wife" of a military man.
A woman may find herself on Guam after two weeks of marriage, he pointed out, and maybe she is pregnant for the first time, too. He expressed appreciation for the work Rhonda and the other spouses do while their husbands are at sea.
"They say the job of a Navy wife is the hardest job of all," Michael said. "The whole time I'm gone, my wife keeps everything moving. She is an expert, she's very independent - I'm not sure she actually needs me. But she likes me. She is happy when I come home."
The couple was last together Jan. 6, when Michael took command of the U.S.S. Oklahoma City, and Rhonda didn't anticipate seeing him again for several months.
The boat was still undergoing maintenance in San Diego in February, but it had made it out of the city in March. Once the boat gets back to Guam, Michael and his crew will start going out on missions, or training for future excursions.
"We will be spending half of our time at sea," he said.
When he is on land, he will explore Guam with his family by scuba diving, hiking, hunting, fishing and taking four-wheeling trips into the jungle in his Jeep.
"I took a little bit of Wyoming with me," Michael said with a laugh.
The family returns to Riverton every year or so to visit Rhonda's parents, Paul and LaNae Weber, and Michael's mom and stepfather, Wanda and Mike Minard. His father, Jim Conner, moved to Arizona in 2009.
Michael said he is glad to come home to Fremont County every once in awhile. He misses the mountains and the solitude of Wyoming, he said, and he still knows a lot of people in the area.
"I know that I have the support of the people back home," he said. "I really appreciate that - knowing I have a place that is home and that will always be home to me is very important."
Michael played football and wrestled through his four years at RHS, and he remembers his coaches fondly. In particular he mentioned the late Ron Thon, the namesake of this weekend's wrestling tournament in Riverton.
"Mr. Thon had a great, great impact on my life," Conner said. "He had a very no-nonsense but gentle way of doing things, and he didn't listen to anybody's excuses."
He also looks forward to seeing Linda Brown, a "fantastic" coach and teacher who still teases him about his weight-lifting regimen, which has gone downhill since high school.
"There's nothing you can say to her, you just know she's right," he said. "I don't lift weights like I used to. I can't find the time."
Though he's busy, he said he enjoys his job, which comes with a lot of responsibility but also brings its share of fulfillment. Michael pointed out that many of his sailors are only a few years older than his oldest son.
"Being able to live this close to and have this much of an impact on 170 guys is an incredible opportunity," he said. "I love interacting with the people, moving young people, training people, motivating people and getting them excited to do what really is, in my mind, the coolest job in the world.
"I got up this morning, and I came to work on a submarine ... and I'm just some kid out of Riverton High School."
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