NEWS | March 25, 2021

Profile in Professionalism: Lt. Cmdr. Fionna Boyle

By Chief Mass Communications Specialist Scott Wichmann

Lt. Cmdr. Fionna Boyle, a graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy, joined the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) in 2007 and took her place within the small, yet vitally important community of Strategic Sealift Officers while accumulating years of valuable shipboard experience in her civilian career as a merchant mariner —  experience she brings  to the Navy at every opportunity. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Arthurgwain Marquez)
SLIDESHOW | 1 images | Profiles in Professionalism: Lt. Cmdr. Fionna Boyle Lt. Cmdr. Fionna Boyle, a graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy, joined the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) in 2007 and took her place within the small, yet vitally important community of Strategic Sealift Officers while accumulating years of valuable shipboard experience in her civilian career as a merchant mariner — experience she brings to the Navy at every opportunity. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Raymond Maddocks)

The unique warfare pin on Lt. Cmdr. Fionna Boyle’s uniform tends to attract attention. Often, she finds herself needing to take a deep breath before explaining what the Strategic Sealift Officer (SSO) warfare insignia represents. 

During World War I, a program was established to formalize the support of Merchant Marine officers to the U.S. military during times of national crisis. Officially dubbed the Merchant Marine Naval Reserve in 1925, it is now known as the Strategic Sealift Officer (SSO) Program.  

Boyle, a graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy, joined the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) in 2007 and took her place within the small, yet vitally important community of SSOs while accumulating years of valuable shipboard experience in her civilian career as a merchant mariner —  experience she brings  to the Navy at every opportunity. 

“I’ve been sailing on oil tankers with a ship management company,” said Boyle. “We charter out to oil majors to carry their product for them. In my civilian job, I’m on a ship for about 75 to 90 days rotation as a deck officer, standing navigation watch 8 hours a day, followed by 4 hours of deck maintenance. Then in port, I’m usually standing 8 hours of cargo watch transferring the oil from ship to shore or shore to ship. It’s a big responsibility.” 

In her Reserve role, Boyle belongs to the Strategic Sealift Readiness Group (SSRG), a team of SSOs made up of actively sailing officers in the U.S. Merchant Marine who are uniquely qualified to operate merchant ships as naval auxiliaries in cases of national emergency. Boyle and her fellow SSOs also provide officer crewing for ships in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) Ready Reserve Force (RRF) and Military Sealift Command's (MSC) Sealift Fleet. 

“The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was only the second time in recent history the IRR was mobilized or activated,” said Boyle. “Not everyone was used, but that’s our role. There’s the active component, then there’s the drilling Reservist, and then the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). We’re there to help with all the other things. And because of our unique skill set, if the Navy had to surge Sealift, that’s what we’re there to do.” 

Boyle said in the event of a global emergency, the activation of the Sealift fleet would be a primary U.S. objective, ensuring a safe, steady stream of logistical support to both military and humanitarian efforts. 

“Lots of our ready Reserve ships around the world would fleet up,” she said, speaking of a possible full-scale SSO call-up. “Whether it’s MSC ships, or Maritime Administration vessels or certain commercial vessels enrolled in the Maritime Security Program (MSP) that would support an activation, that’s what we’re responsible to know how to do. So a lot of our two week active duty for training (ADT) time is spent on those types of vessels, just learning the ship.” 

There are roughly 200 SSOs in the Selected Reserve (SELRES) community, but the vast majority, including Boyle and close to 2,000 others, belong to the IRR, bringing both operational flexibility and expertise to the Navy in a wide array of domains.  

“I’m not part of a unit that drills, so I’m really that individual Sailor travelling to support different missions,” said Boyle. “We have SSO-area-of-responsibility officers globally, and our flag sponsor is MSC, so if there’s an opportunity around the world for longer-term orders, whether it’s 30 days or more, we can go and support different missions, working at shipyards, completing tactical advisor training and supporting U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM).”  

Boyle said SSOs routinely advise bridge teams from different surface community commands in order to help them complete their Bridge Resource Management Workshops (BRMW) and to improve safety protocols, especially in crowded commercial shipping lanes.  

“Our SSOs go on Navy ships to observe watch rotations on the bridge and in the Combat Information Center (CIC).” said Boyle. “After observing, the team interacts with watchstanders to provide ideas and suggestions. We share the merchant marine perspective of how situations appear on the bridges of commercial ships.” 

Boyle said the enormous responsibility she often feels as a watchstander in the Merchant Marine can come in quite handy during BRMW training.  

“When I stand watch in my civilian career, it’s only me and my watch partner,” she said. “It’s a 600-foot vessel carrying 300,000 barrels of oil and we’re responsible for standing the watch alone. Naval ships are very different, so we help bring our management style and difference of thought to that surface Navy component — using our Merchant Marine skill set to provide feedback for commanding officers” 

Like her fellow SSOs, Boyle must maintain all civilian maritime licenses, credentials and U.S. Coast Guard certifications as well as meet her annual Navy medical, dental and administrative benchmarks, some of which are challenging due to the specific place her community occupies within the Reserve. 

Boyle and her fellow SSOs are technically part of the Active Status Pool (ASP), located within the IRR, but they aren’t traditional IRR Sailors, as they are issued common access cards and have job-specific access to some resources and systems traditional IRR Sailors don’t have.  

Still, they’re not exactly SELRES, either, so there are frequent administrative challenges, such as tracking retirement points and getting them processed correctly; E-mustering members and getting Inactive Duty Training  (IDT) orders written and approved just to meet annual medical requirements, and unlocking frequently frozen NMCI accounts.  

“We don’t have a brick-and-mortar,” she said. “Our program office operates like a virtual NOSC.” 

Currently serving on active duty recall orders with the transformation team at CNRFC, Boyle is part of a team working on the modernization and consolidation of Navy and Navy Reserve administrative and pay processes into one online platform, the Navy Pay and Personnel System (NP2).  

Boyle said she’s proud to be an advocate for both the IRR and SSO communities as active and Reserve admin systems are being streamlined. 

“Now that there’s a huge transformation effort, we have a seat at the table,” she said. “Being able to help add our voice to the transformation team is really important for our SSO force.” 

In her downtime, Boyle attends classes at Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy in Norfolk in an effort to add to her merchant mariner skillset. In February, 2020, she took and passed her chief mate’s license certification exam, a key step toward her ultimate goal of becoming master of a merchant vessel, the Merchant Marine equivalent of a ship’s captain. 

“I’ve really enjoyed my civilian job and I’m thankful for all the opportunities it gives me,” said Boyle. “I keep getting pulled to go out to sea — despite the hectic pace of operations, in the quieter moments, it brings a lot of peace and an opportunity to reflect.” 

“What I love about this overall dynamic is that my Navy career and my civilian job are different, but it’s all in the same alignment,” she said. “The railroad tracks are parallel.” 

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