By Leslie Hull-Ryde
One strategic sealift officer who chose to attend the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, at Kings Point, New York, because it was “the academy with the most options and best opportunities,” now claims he’s homeless.
Lt. Cmdr. Brad Lawhon has lived overseas or been stationed aboard ships, both commercial and USNS, for the last seven years.
“I have coined the phrase ‘successfully homeless,’ as I have not been able to call anywhere home,” he said.
Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Lawhon had his sites on a life of adventure with the Navy. Since a young boy, he knew he’d be gone from home quite a bit as he dreamed of earning his Navy wings.
“I initially wanted to be a naval aviator. That's why I chose Kings Point, as they receive the same number of flight school seats as Annapolis,” he said.
“By my junior year of high school, I knew the Merchant Marine Academy was where I needed, to go because of their motto, ‘the academy with the most options and best opportunities.’”
After completing the academy’s requisite sea terms, Lawhon says his dream of flying had wavered. By his senior year at USMMA, the call to sea had become too enticing for him. Upon graduation, he decided to sail commercially.
“The ways things have played out in my commercial sailing and naval career; I can confidently say I don’t think I would have the same unique opportunities and experiences if I were just a pilot.”
After graduation from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 2009, he had to serve either on active duty or as a reservist in one of the armed forces.
“If one chooses to sail on their merchant mariner license, which most do, then completing the service obligation as a reservist is the only viable option,” Lawhon said.
“I decided to sail and go into the Navy Reserves as a strategic sealift officer along with most of my classmates.”
Since making that career decision, Lawhon says he’s been in complete control of his career.
“In my opinion, [the mariner career path] and the SSO program allow the same flexibility, and if one can juggle both, each can greatly complement the other.
“I have somehow managed to do both and utilized the full six months I am not sailing to my advantage by pursuing extended active-duty assignments.”
His roles and responsibilities have been as varied as his employers, from all navigation officer positions to working for Military Sealift Command Far East as a boat operator conducting training for U.S. State Department personnel. As a contract mariner, he’s served as chief mate aboard USNS Red Cloud (T-AKR 313), USNS Watson (T-AKR 310), and USNS Sisler (T-AKR 311). As a Navy reservist, he’s spent time in uniform in Bahrain, Southeast Asia, and Korea.
Often his reserve stints between contract-mariner assignments have extended longer than originally planned. One 45-day active-duty-for-training job jumped to 132 days overnight when he was requested for a “hot fill” executive officer billet with Military Sealift Command Office Korea.
“That decision to go out to Busan ended up lasting 13 months, encompassing three different positions, and during a month-long period, I was doing all three at once,” Lawhon said.
While in Korea, he wore several different hats, fulfilling several different roles – all at the same time. Initially, he joined the MSCO Korea office to serve as the executive officer but soon after also took on the job of director of operations and, concurrently, assistant operations officer as that position was vacated while Lawhon was on board.
His time in Korea was extended unexpectedly when the coronavirus pandemic impacted military moves, which were halted. During the prolonged stay, Lawhon continued to prove useful as he coordinated with a number of agencies to ensure MSC ships’ crews were relieved on time and timely voyage repairs were made. He worked closely with several U.S. and host nation agencies to ensure every MSC evolution adhered to strict protocols to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of the host nation population and civil service and contracted mariners.
“I am very proud of what my MSC and host nation colleagues and I accomplished in Korea,” Lawhon said.
“Working together, Chinhae was successfully reopened for vessel repairs. It was the first port in Asia to be opened back up for business for MSC,” Lawhon said.
When travel conditions allowed, he took a one-month break and then returned to USNS Sisler as chief mate.
“After taking 18-months off from sailing, I had a successful trip, especially since I earned the required sea time for my final upgrade to master mariner of unlimited tonnage,” he said.
After USNS Sisler, the Navy reservist took orders to Military Sealift Command Far East, where he is currently serving as a marine transportation specialist.
After this gig, who knows? He still has options and opportunities.
“I would like to sail as a captain as soon as the opportunity arises, and also, once I am done sailing, I wouldn't mind attending grad school for international business, but I will always remain in the maritime industry.”