Sub base executive officer retires, returns to Nebraska farm
Groton ― Newly retired Navy Cmdr. Reginald “Reg” Preston recalls the moment in 1993 as he watched the opening of the documentary “Submarines: Sharks of Steel.”
A Navy captain described putting hydraulics, pipes and weapons into a metal tube and then “intentionally sink it in saltwater. That’s not inherently safe.”
Then a 13-year-old on his family’s farm in Nebraska, Preston was hooked.
He enlisted in the Navy at age 17. But at the urging of his mother, who received her college degree with three kids at home, he applied for and received a Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship, graduating from Iowa State University with a degree in agricultural engineering.
“She passed early in my time in college, but she knew the path she had me on,” said the 42-year-old Preston, 42 at his Navy retirement ceremony Friday, getting choked up.
After a 20-year Navy career that most recently included three and a half years as executive officer ― XO ― of Naval Submarine Base New London, Preston is returning to his roots. He and his wife have purchased land in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska to operate a 4,500-acre farm, adjacent to where he grew up.
His retirement plan has prompted comparisons to former president Jimmy Carter, a submariner who left the service to work on the family farm.
Preston said his farm will grow wheat and mill it into flour, to be distributed between Denver, Colo. and Rapid City, S.D. He said to focus on soil health, he will have to rotate crops, meaning he will also grow oats, barley, millet, field peas and milo.
“It’s usually sort of a nameless, faceless thing: You go to the grocery store to buy your loaf of bread,” Preston said, adding he takes pride in being able to “take some of the mystery out of it for the consumer.”
He said the farm is called Grand Republic, “a nod towards my 20 years in the Navy of defending this grand republic.”
Growing up on the family farm, he had to drive 30 miles to high school. But this won’t be an issue for his 12-year-old and 8-year-old children. Preston said the family bought a house in town and he will commute to the farm. His wife, Katey, will be teaching at Lincoln Heights Elementary School.
It’s the first big move for the girls, considering his older daughter was too young to remember moving from Guam to southeastern Connecticut in 2012. Preston said he will head to Nebraska as early as Monday for spring planting but return for house cleaning and to pick up the rest of his family.
The new executive officer of the Naval Submarine Base is Cmdr. Bradley Boyd, who took over Feb. 21.
From Nebraska to Navy
Preston and his wife are both from Scotts Bluff County, near the Wyoming border. Growing up on the edge of a river valley, with a backdrop of bluffs and the North Platte River, Preston could see the Rocky Mountains on a clear day.
He described an “idyllic farm childhood” helping his dad grow wheat. His father’s father grew wheat and raised cattle.
“I would’ve stayed to farm if (my father) had not gently prodded me to expand my horizons and get out and explore the world,” Preston said at his retirement ceremony, which his father attended. He spoke about the first half of his career, where the attitude was “go here, do these jobs, ride on these boats.”
He stood on the bridge of a ballistic submarine sailing south into the Irish Sea, as the sun rose over Scotland. He sailed on the bridge of a submarine “in some of the most blinding snow Alaska can offer.” He drove subs in and out of Tokyo Bay and Singapore.
“A bad day at sea is always better than a good day in port,” Preston said, adding, “My bingo card was pretty full of experience pretty early on.” He also served as a visiting lecturer and student adviser for Naval ROTC at Cornell University, where he received a master’s degree in engineering management. He also has a master’s in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College.
But Preston said he wouldn’t trade his time in southeastern Connecticut for two full careers at sea. He and Katey got to know their neighbors, an experience people outside the Navy enjoy but one that was exceptional for them.
One of Preston’s career highlights was being the officer in charge of the historic ship Nautilus and director of the Submarine Force Museum during the celebration of Connecticut’s “Submarine Century” in 2015 and 2016, marking the 100th anniversary of the base and Naval Submarine School. Boyd, his successor as executive officer of the base, was also his successor in this role.
Starting in 2018, Preston then spent about a year and a half at the Submarine On Board Training Programming, a branch of the Submarine Learning Center that creates and deploys training products for submarines around the world.
He became executive officer of the sub base, second-in-command to the commanding officer, in September 2019. A standout moment for Preston was the opening of Pier 32, which he called “an enormous win for the sub base.” He also noted that another barracks building will be opening soon.
And of course there were the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Preston said he did more Navy work from his house than he thought possible.
“You served your country well by serving your people,” retired Capt. Aaron Thieme, senior submarine tactical adviser at the Naval Submarine School, said Friday at Preston’s retirement. “You gave them inspiration and hope through unprecedented challenges.”
Thieme also read some anonymous quotes from people who worked with Preston: He was “always available and supportive.” He had a positive attitude. He “made your priority feel like it was his number-one priority.”
Editor’s note: Cmdr. Preston described watching the sun rise over Scotland. That information was incorrect in a previous version of this article.
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