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    Monday, July 15, 2024

    ‘A little bit of saltiness’: East Lyme submariner comes full circle

    Cmdr. Mike Hartzell talks Wednesday, May 8, 2024, about his career in the Navy and growing up in East Lyme while in the ward room of the Virginia-class submarine USS Virginia (SSN 774). (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    USS Virginia Cmdr. Mike Hartzell

    Groton ― USS Virginia Cmdr. Mike Hartzell is back where he started.

    The East Lyme native, born at Naval Submarine Base New London and raised one mile from where he now lives with his wife and three children, took command of the fast attack submarine last month.

    A commander by rank, he’s captain of the ship to the crew members who passed each other sideways in the narrow confines of the 377-foot submarine last week.

    Chief of the Boat (COB) Joel Burchwell, of Orient, Ohio, was in the torpedo room when he greeted his superior with Midwestern enthusiasm.

    “Hi, Cap’n,” Burchwell called out in passing from between two massive green missiles.

    The COB, later describing his superior, said Hartzell has brought “compassion and vigor back to the crew.” Along with that comes motivation.

    “We have a clear path of what needs to get done because of him,” Burchwell said. “He drives us to meet his expectations, and he lets us know when we don’t.”

    Hartzell sat for an interview at the head of the table dominating the submarine’s ward room. It’s where officers eat, others sit for briefings, and doctors can operate on injured sailors when necessary.

    “I got to come to the best submarine in the entire Navy: The Virginia,” he said. “We’re first in class.”

    The Virginia, the inaugural submarine in a class that now includes 25 launched ships, was built at Electric Boat in Groton and commissioned in 2004.

    The former high school basketball player likened being a commanding officer to being a coach. On his team, he relies just as much on the most junior sailor as he does on the most senior.

    “It’s taking a brand new, possibly 18-year-old high school graduate and making them realize that on this 120-person crew, they are just as important as my COB who’s been in forever and knows everything about a submarine,” he said.

    References from the 40-year-old boy-at-heart often turned to gamesmanship.

    “Being on a submarine is unique because we can operate for so long unsupported and undetected,” he said of deployments taking them to sea for more than six months at a time. “For me, I’ve liked the idea of it being somewhat of an adult hide-and-seek kind of game, but with extreme ramifications.”

    Shorter training stints of weeks, not months, are scheduled periodically at the commanding officer’s discretion as a chance “to play” in advance of the big game.

    “Playing is a loose term, but that’s what I see it as, and it’s always geared toward getting ready for that next major milestone, which is leaving the home port for an extended period of time,” he said.

    He retains the same youthful enthusiasm for the Navy that led him to follow in the footsteps of his late father, retired Cmdr. Steve Hartzell, and late maternal grandfather, Master Chief Petty Officer Joe Pow. The forefathers served together on a submarine when Pow was chief of the boat and Steve Hartzell was a brand new recruit.

    Hartzell lamented that his mother, father and grandfather died before they could witness the change of command ceremony last month. He credited them for the example they set early on.

    “I’ve learned so much from them growing up, about aspects that make a good submarine officer in general,” he said. “Maybe a little bit of a quick wit, some compassion and a little bit of saltiness.”

    The Navy legacy entered Pennsylvania State University on a ROTC scholarship, graduating in 2006 with a commission and a girlfriend who would become his wife. He traveled up and down the East Coast, attending nuclear power school in Charleston, S.C., training in Groton, and serving on his first sub, the USS Augusta, in Norfolk, Va., before he married Amanda Johnson on July 4, 2009.

    The couple has three children: Tyler, 12, Evelyn, 10, and Eliana, 7.

    Hartzell went on to serve on three more submarines, rising through the ranks in a submarine force that he said “never lets you get comfortable” in one position.

    He was second-in-command of the Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS New Mexico at Naval Station Norfolk when he expressed interest in returning to Connecticut. The Navy kid recalled a relatively static upbringing in East Lyme while his father spent numerous tours at sea on submarines and aircraft carriers.

    “I’ve moved my kids now five times,” he said, with the lengthiest stints on Guam and in Virginia. “My oldest hasn’t had the same kind of experience I had growing up in the military, so it’s been nice to come back to a place where I already had roots.”

    Hartzell, who spent all but his kindergarten year in the East Lyme school system, said his youngest entered Flanders Elementary School at the same age he did.

    “It’s been a full circle moment for me to see her walk through Flanders,” he said.

    Hartzell expects this assignment to be his last on a submarine. He cited a career structure that encourages “fresh blood” in leadership. Subsequent assignments split off into shore commands that he hopes might include a teaching role.

    Still, he said he’ll grasp at straws to stay onboard as long as he can.

    “They'll have to pull me off, to be honest,” he said.

    For now, he’s focused on the moment and making sure he can do the best job possible of getting “the extreme talent” onboard recognized and promoted into the jobs he has been lucky enough to hold.

    “And then whatever happens with me, happens,” he said.

    Amanda Hartzell in a phone interview said living in East Lyme helps the kids relate to their father’s experience.

    “I think the biggest benefit has been for the accessibility of family to come and support them at their games and the different sports they’re involved in,” she said.

    Tyler plays football; Evelyn, softball; and Eliana, soccer. The middle child is excited her school will be adding a volleyball team to its schedule next year.

    With Hartzell set to deploy this summer, she credited sports for giving the kids something to look forward to while he’s away. Weekend trips to see her family in Pittsburgh, Pa., or to visit the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont provide more “milestones” to get them through the absence.

    For Hartzell, saying goodbye at the pier is the most difficult part of the job. But it keeps him going.

    “We’re doing the hard thing for the people we love that we’re leaving shoreside,” he said. “It’s bigger than ourselves, what we do.”

    e.regan@theday.com

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