Orange native finds his calling - on a nuclear submarine
by Ginger Broomes
When Ragan Anderson-Hennigan graduated high school in 2008, he went to college like many graduates do. There, he was a music education major. But it wasn’t long until he began to realize that he wasn’t on a path made for him. A suggestion from his mother, Caroline, set him on a different course.
“She told me I should join the military. She said, ‘You're not sure what you want to do, so here is a career path to take’,” recalled Hennigan.
On that day he went to the Navy Recruiting office in Orange to speak with a recruiter. He was given a practice ASVAB – a military enlistment test that the recruiter said would tell him what he should do, and where his strengths were. Hennigan scored a 99 on the practice test.
“He told me I can do pretty much anything, so why not become a ‘Nuke’. They teach you about reactors, you can be a mechanic, an operator. But it’s a lot of school.”
Nuke – or the Navy’s nuclear program – was divided into two types of seagoing commands, either on an aircraft carrier or on a submarine.
It takes a very special kind of person to be on a sub, due to months in close quarters with others and submerged underwater for a majority of the time.
One thing sealed Hennigan’s decision to become a nuclear submarine operator.
“The reason I decided to go for submarines,” he said, “was the demeanor of the people who wore dolphins on their uniform. That was it. I really got along with people that wore dolphins.”
Dolphins are the submarine warfare insignia worn by submariners who have earned them. And they earn them by demonstrating a vast knowledge of all systems aboard a submarine, in a process called “qualifying”.
Hennigan didn’t come from a military family, or join to continue the tradition like some enlisted do. It was simply a direction when he was directionless, and a decision sealed by others he began to look up to. In May of 2011, he enlisted in the Navy.
He wouldn’t set foot on a “boat” (sub) for two more years.
“You know you’re going to be in that program, but don’t know what job you’re going to be in. You find that out in boot camp.”
And so, it was off to the boot camp in Great Lakes, where the physical demands of would pale in comparison to the mental demands to follow. Whatever job a recruit is assigned, they must go to a school strictly for that job, right after boot camp. Hennigan was sent to what the Navy calls “A” School in Charleston, South Carolina next, gaining a knowledge of technical math, power distribution, basic trigonometry and more.
From there it was off to Nuclear Power School (NPS) in Goose Creek, South Carolina, where he learned nuclear physics and reactor engineering – courses specifically designed to work on a pressurized-water Naval nuclear power plant. Following NPS, it was off to a six-month course on a sub prototype.
“It was like drinking through a fire hose,” Hennigan remembered. “A lot of math, how different components work. Then, Power School, you are studying on top of working. You’re there to learn to do a job and have an obligation to put your best foot forward. A different atmosphere than college. ”
In Dec. 2013 he was finally assigned to his boat (sub), the USS Jacksonville SSN 699 submarine in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Having been assigned to a boat, there’s was still more learning to do. This is a nuclear naval submarine, after all. Now Hennigan had to prove he was qualified in submarines – in the form of what is called a “qual card”. On the card is every system on the ship, broken down, and is part of an extensive qualification process that lasts over a year.
Everyone has to show knowledge of every system on the ship. It’s a system of redundancies for protection. Even though Hennigan had been through two years of training, you’re handed your qual cards, because you need to learn THIS boat.
While a sailor is qualifying, they’re still working, their duties either while docked next to the pier, or going ‘underway’ (submerged).
“Daily life - as you become more studied - you get more and more responsibility,” said Hennigan. “They give you what you can handle and still make your quals.”
The hardest part as a new recruit, Hennigan said, was learning where to stand. How not to be in people’s way on a submarine.
“It’s harder than it sounds. There’s an etiquette to when you should move out of the way, and where to stand to be unobtrusive. There is a huge focus on etiquette due to the close proximity.”
As a new sailor earning his quals, cleaning the sub was a huge part of the job due to the very nature of a steel ship in salt water. Other time is spent studying to get certified on your qual card. Hennigan said as the officers and engineers sacrificed a lot of their time to teach you, to listen to what you’ve learned and provide feedback, you want to do your very best.
Ten months later, in October 2014, Hennigan qualified for his beloved dolphins. Now he was officially ‘Machinist’s Mate Nuclear 3rd Class Ragan Anderson-Hennigan’. More importantly, he was one of them: a submariner.
“That was a proud moment,” Hennigan recalled, smiling at the memory. “It’s separate from your nuclear quals. It’s the entire ship.”
“I thought I was smart when I joined the program, and I became average very quickly. I may be boosting myself by even saying I was average, compared to these guys and how smart they are.”
Once you’re qualified, you’re either working or looking for something to work on. You’re looking ahead to the maintenance work that needs to be done, ordering your parts, and finding a way to get something fixed in order to not interfere with required work. Operating and maintaining steam turbines used for the nuclear sub’s propulsion. Maintaining electrohydraulic steering engines and desalinization plants. Operating nuclear reactor control and propulsion.
Then, there are the deployments, and Hennigan went on two. The first was in the western Pacific Ocean for six months, and the second was in the Indian Ocean for 237 days.
Duties on his first deployment included standing watch, eight hours a day, for 75 days of that time, alert and looking for anything that could go wrong on the sub. Three months of that time was spent again in school, this time learning to be an evaporator tech. When he wasn’t working, he visited Perth, Australia, Singapore and Sepanggar, Malaysia.
The second deployment was 237 days in the Indian Ocean, submerged a good 92 percent of the time. He was able to visit Bahrain on that deployment.
Hennigan said there were times when things got very tense, but due to the classified nature of deployments, he couldn’t say why.
“In a sealed metal tube under the water, there’s a lot of potential dangers there, and we take it very seriously because we want to make it back to the surface.”
Being submerged in a metal container for months at a time can take a mental toll on a person. The USS Jacksonville was home and work for 100 sailors during that time. If a sailor is not working, they’re making sure to keep occupied. Downtime aboard a sub is spent either working out, playing cribbage, (a ‘submariner’s game’) or watching shows already downloaded on your laptop. There’s not a lot of wi-fi underwater.
This is why care packages are such a welcome gift. Hennigan had met his girlfriend Emily while in school, and she continually sent care packages. She directed him to open certain packages on certain days. There were ones for the days when he was feeling sad, and others to open when he felt happy.
“She was just awesome the entire time,” Hennigan recalled. “When you’re submerged that long, it can be a lifesaver. Every time I pulled into port, she was there and would make time for me. I thought, ‘I have to hold on to this one’.”
While in Bahrain, Hennigan had bought a diamond ring, and once the second deployment was over, he enlisted the help of his captain and the crew at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam who were setting up the ‘welcome home’ event for the USS Jacksonville.
That August day in 2017, when Emily ran up to him to welcome him home, he dropped to one knee in front of hundreds of crew, families and media, and proposed. She said yes.
His proposal was captured by local news station “Hawaii News Now”.
That would be his last deployment, and the end of his time in Hawaii. He’d attained the rank of Machinist Mate Nuclear 1st Class and married Emily, and from there, he transferred to Bremerton, Washington, where the process of decommissioning the USS Jacksonville began. The ship, built in 1981, and containing what Hennigan described as “cool Cold-War-era” instruments, had served its purpose, and was officially decommissioned in 2021.
Today, the Hennigans are back in Goose Creek, South Carolina, married with a three-year-old daughter named Lily. Hennigan is on back on shore duty, and teaching new recruits at one of the schools that he attended.
Teaching also provides him with a ‘circle of life’ moment. With his enlistment coming to an end this May, the junior sailors he now teaches reminds him of where he came from.
Day to day with new recruits, Hennigan doesn’t see what others see when complaining about the ‘new generations’.
“I’m loving this new generation coming through,” he said. “I’m seeing a lot of students that are driven to be experts. They’re highly motivated to be good at what they do, and they take pride in being an accomplished individual. I’m really proud of them, personally. They’ve got it figured out.”
Asked if he would change anything about the path he took in the Navy, the years of schooling and years of being submerged, Hennigan doesn’t hesitate.
“My life is what I want it to be because I did this, period. This was exactly what I needed. Anyone who needs some direction in their life like I did. Was it hard? Yes. Were there bad times? Yes. But that’s anywhere in life. The pros outweighed the cons.
“It’s incredibly intellectually challenging. You’ll be hitting a lot of books. It’s going to teach you stuff that translates to practical civilian knowledge. And you learn how to learn. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll learn stuff when you’re done. If you don’t want to pay for college, the nuke program is perfect for that.
“I do not regret a single moment,” he said, smiling. “It was the best decision I could have ever made.”
(Training & technical info pulled from Navy.com)