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NEWS | Oct. 5, 2023

From Special Ops to Conquering the Seas: The Remarkable Journey of Lt. Cmdr. John Halligan

By U.S. Army Spc. Matthew Mackintosh, Joint Task Force Red-Hill Public Affairs

The serene yet fierce nature of the ocean is a quality that U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Halligan is intimately acquainted with, and it's a quality he wholeheartedly embraces. The dualistic essence of the sea offers Halligan, a member of the Joint Task Force-Red Hill (JTF-RH) Operations Directorate, a blend of solace and challenge that has become a constant in his life.
Halligan's identity as a Sailor extends beyond just the uniform and his branch affiliation; it is interwoven with his personal journeys.
“As busy as life is at times, when you get out on the water, you hoist your sail and there’s nothing but the sound of wind,’ said Halligan. “It’s transformative and I love it.”
In fact, Halligan loves sailing so much, when he received orders to assist in establishing JTF-RH, he opted to sail from his home in Seattle to Honolulu. He chose a two-week voyage over the traditional six-hour flight; a total distance spanning approximately 2,700 miles, his longest expedition to date. Beyond foregoing the luxuries of complimentary snacks and in-flight entertainment, his preferred mode of travel demanded more effort than many would anticipate.
“You’re immersed in one of the most hostile environments on Earth,” said Halligan. "Everything is infused with saltwater, and your vessel becomes your haven. It's a constant balancing act: managing systems, withstanding the strain they endure, the continual flexing of the hull, the dance of wind and sails. Perfection is elusive, and mechanical glitches are a given, so you're on high alert, constantly considering contingencies and backup plans."
Halligan further stated, “But that only happens in the very margins of things. The majority of the time, everything seems to work out and it kind of sails itself. There’s always a lot of planning ahead because when you’re sailing, you’re forced to be present in the moment.”
Between the four crew members, to include Halligan, there was a constant 24-hour watch to ensure the crew’s safety, constant manning of the boat, equipment maintenance, and many other things to ensure smooth progression of the voyage. Despite the rigorous work, it is the challenge of sailing that brings Halligan enjoyment.
“Sailing is challenging and rewarding and it makes you feel alive,” Halligan explained. “You have to be alert to what’s going on around you, alert to the weather, to the sun, how much daylight you have, visibility, your health … that’s what it’s like being on a sailboat. You’re always in tune with every gust and wave, every ripple on the water and you’re forced to be that way. There’s nowhere to go, you can’t just stop … no matter how tired, how cold, how many things broke, you’re going to have to innovate your way around until you’re safe on land where you can rest.”
A reflection of Halligan's daring spirit lies in the name of his boat – "Wildkat." The name was a tribute to a nickname he earned during his time with special operations, a time when “Airman” was more fitting than the title of “Sailor.” A time when he was challenged physically and not by maritime waves, which inspired the vessel’s name.
“I always saw the military as a source for the adrenaline and camaraderie, but never looked at it as a career,” Halligan reflected on his earlier years.
Before Halligan commissioned as a U.S. Navy intelligence officer, he enlisted into the U.S. Air Force in 1992, where he served on active duty for four years as a combat controller in Air Force special operations. After his initial contract, he transitioned to the Reserve component for an additional 10 years where he served as an aerial gunner for rescue operations. During his tenure with the Air Force, Halligan made multiple deployments overseas, supporting operations in Bosnia and Operation Enduring Freedom, proving an aptitude for thriving in hostile environments. His efficiency is attributed to his training with special operations, along with his innate knack for challenges and highly-focused nature.
His impressive service with the Air Force started with the ability to swim and the desire for a challenge.
On the fourth day of Basic Military Training, the cadre gave a briefing to the young trainees on Combat Control. During the speech, the young Halligan’s ears caught onto the mention of a swimming portion and thought to himself, “Sounds like I want to go for a swim and get out of basic training for a bit.”
Halligan quickly found himself in a pool with many other interested trainees and swam the required distance from the facilitating staff. Many were escorted out by the cadre upon quitting or not being able to finish. When Halligan announced he completed the distance, the staff member looked toward the lane observer for confirmation and was pleasantly surprised. The staff member managed to persuade a then uninterested Halligan to finish the qualification course and his competitiveness drove him to do just that, ultimately changing his career path from a linguist to combat controller.
Though, before Halligan ever set sail, and before the thrill of being a skilled operator, he fulfilled his need for a challenge in the sport of swimming. Halligan was an avid swimmer throughout high school and his tenure at Texas A&M University.
"I was practically a fish, always by the pool," Halligan humorously recalled. "For me, swimming was a blend of competition and serenity. It's about moving efficiently through water and achieving an inner calm. Underwater, self-regulation is imperative – it's a solitary experience."
It was through swimming where he sharpened his competitive edge, but also where he sharpened his mind.
“Swimming teaches you about yourself,” said Halligan. “When you're swimming, your head is in the water so there’s not a lot of sensory input to your ears, to your eyes and you have a very narrow field of view and eliminating your senses to just touch, for hours at a time.”
Halligan emphasized, “You’re in your own head so much when you’re swimming, it turns out to be a very thoughtful thing. You’re in the moment thinking about every stroke, positioning your body trying to get everything right; it’s a very immediate sort of thing. You spend a lot of time with your own thoughts and learning to be comfortable with yourself. That is what a lot of swimmers develop: the confidence in knowing themselves.”
Swimming proved vital in his service in the Air Force, and in how he approaches life as a whole. The belief of being present in the moment effortlessly transitioned from one military branch to the other, and between his military and civilian occupations.
This philosophy continues to fill Halligan’s sails as he serves at JTF-RH. “It doesn’t surprise me that he literally sailed his boat to Hawaii from the mainland,” said JTF-RH Assistant Operations Officer, U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Graham Perry. “His willingness to meet challenges face-to-face and his can-do attitude are the qualities that make him the perfect fit for this task force.”
Being able to find the calm through the storm, to be present in the moment despite how perilous the environment may be, will help strengthen JTF-RH and its mission to safely and expeditiously defuel the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, and to rebuild the community’s trust in the process. Once the mission is accomplished and the Wildkat sets sail from Hawaii, Halligan will set his sights back into the Pacific and will once again venture out into unknown territory.