In one year stationed at sub base, sailor jumps into community ― and a difficult new role
Groton ― Since reporting to the Naval Submarine Base in Groton a year ago, Fire Control Technician 1st Class Jessica Staley has become quartermaster at a local VFW post, joined the Ledyard Cemetery Commission, become involved with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Groton, and worked on her master of business administration degree.
That’s in addition to her main job: teaching sailors at the Naval Submarine School how to track enemy targets and about the weapons they could be using, before they go to sea.
But over the summer, she started a collateral duty ― a role on the side to help out the command ― and was almost immediately thrown into a difficult situation, one that pulled her from the class she was in the middle of teaching.
Staley, 39, is the newest casualty assistance calls officer, or CACO, the person who is called when a service member dies or is seriously injured. She finished her classes in July and was assigned as the primary CACO in August, out of a rotation of six people.
A few days into August, she said, a submarine school student got into a motorcycle accident and ended up in a coma.
Staley drove to Hartford Hospital multiple days a week for four weeks. She helped family members with travel paperwork so they could be by his side, and helped them find a place to stay close to the hospital. She explained military benefits to them, and worked with the American Red Cross, Semper Fi Fund, VFW posts and church organizations.
Staley said she helped facilitate the transfer to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and that the man has woken up from the coma. When August ended, another person became the primary CACO, though Staley noted she would have stayed on if the man wasn’t transferred.
Her own experience drove her interest in becoming a CACO.
“I’ve had friends that were military die, and I’ve had family myself die, so being notified by somebody who understands is important,” said Staley, who has lost a mother, brother and both maternal grandparents. She knows the value of “having somebody take care of the minutiae” so family members can focus on their loved ones.
As the medical department chief for Submarine Readiness Squadron 32 at the Naval Submarine Base, Senior Chief Petty Officer Simon Makuchowski helps coordinate CACO responses.
“Within a couple of days of her being assigned a CACO, she had already established herself as a person to call with a wealth of knowledge and willingness to assist,” Makuchowski said. He said with a complex case that came up a couple of weeks ago, he reached out to people with a question, and “every single person was like, ‘Talk to Jessi Staley,’ ‘talk to Jessi,’ ‘talk to Petty Officer Staley.’”
He said Staley is empathetic and intelligent but good at knowing what she doesn’t know, with a willingness “to find the answers and build the networks to maintain that knowledge.”
Makuchowski is also the post commander of VFW Post 4608 in Ledyard, where Staley has become quartermaster, a role that involves handling finances. Makuchowski said she modernized the organization from the “kind of records-keeping like you would’ve seen in the 1950s,” and that she also spreads awareness of the VFW at events like parades or the Ledyard Farmers Market.
David Nelson, a Gales Ferry resident and Fourth District Commander for the VFW in Connecticut, said Staley is the person who plays devil’s advocate at meetings and makes sure others think outside the box.
“She always provides the thought process that we overlook,” he said, adding, “She seems kind of soft-spoken, but when she says things, you step back and think about it.”
Being in a strong military family, Staley said she got involved with the VFW because she wanted to make sure veterans are taken care of.
Jumping at a new opportunity
Staley grew up in Montana and said she always wanted to be in the military and follow in her family’s footsteps: Her grandfather served in the Army in World War II and her father was a Marine. She got married in 2006 and her husband was serving in the Army at the time.
Staley lost 175 pounds so she could join the Navy.
When she joined in 2010, she wanted to serve on a submarine, interested in being part of a smaller community. But women weren’t allowed at the time, and even after the first female officer qualified in submarines in 2012, it would be a few more years until that extended to enlisted sailors.
Staley became an Aegis Computer Network Technician and was assigned to the guided missile destroyer USS Nitze when the Navy announced in January 2015 that enlisted women would be eligible to serve on submarines.
“Yes, this is my chance,” she recalled thinking, and let the lead petty officer and chief know she wanted to apply. Staley went to submarine school in 2016 and said she then became one of the first 100 women to serve on a submarine.
She served on the USS Michigan from 2017 to 2020 and then was stationed at Submarine Group 9 in Washington State before reporting to the Naval Submarine Base in Groton last September. Staley was pregnant with her 1-year-old while in Washington, and she also has a 9-year-old.
“I’m all about family,” Staley said. The “strong family aspect” is what drew her to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and at her church, she provides mentorship to teenage girls.
Staley is also working on getting her MBA, with an emphasis in government and project management. She can retire in seven and a half years, and her goal is to then work at Electric Boat or somewhere like EB.