A veteran's story in honor of Military Appreciation Month

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Mara Title
  • 65th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
May has been designated as National Military Appreciation Month, allowing us to honor, remember, recognize and appreciate those who have served and are now serving, as well as discover the history behind their service.

Along with a dynamic active-duty work force, Lajes Field is fortunate to have veterans who serve in the civilian sector, helping to achieve a critical fuel mission in the Azores.

One such veteran is retired U.S. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer James Harkins, who serves as the deputy store director for the Lajes Field Commissary. When serving on active duty, his rich food-service career allowed him to visit countless countries, serve multiple heads of state, and do what he loved best every day -- cook.

When young Jim Harkins was in high school, he was the assistant manager of a well-known fried chicken restaurant. His mom and dad owned three restaurants when he was growing up, so, "It was something that came natural," he said.

Once Mr. Harkins finished high school, he wasn't sure what he wanted to do. His father and two uncles influenced him to consider the military, since he loved to travel. His father served two tours in the Navy, and both uncles served in the Air Force and Marine Corps for 30 years. He went to talk to a recruiter in each branch, and in 1978 he joined the Navy.

"I wanted to see the world," said Mr. Harkins. "I liked the fact I could see so many places within a short amount of time in the Navy."

His first duty station was Subic Bay in the Phillipines, where he served as a boatswainmate seaman. It was there he encountered a key mentor in his Navy career, Master Chief Petty Officer Inquicano, who ran the dining hall.

"As a seaman, if you didn't have anything else to do, they sent you to the chow hall to work," said Mr. Harkins. "He's the one who really got me into cooking more."

Harkins' cooking led Subic Bay to win the Capt. Edward F. Ney award for the best dining facility operations in the Navy. This award would be the first of seven Ney awards during his career. He also had three Admiral Zumwalt awards for outstanding management of bachelor's quarters in three different commands.

He then left the Phillipines for his first ship, the Oklahoma City WWII Class Cruiser, at a Naval base at Yukuska, Japan. The ship was decommissioned - sent to the reserve fleet -- and he received orders to serve on the U.S.S. Ranger in San Diego, Calif. Before arriving on the Ranger, Mr. Harkins decided he wanted to work in the supply department, where he had the opportunity to go to school and become a Navy cook.

He completed the Navy culinary arts school, and immediately upon reporting to the Ranger, he deployed, visiting nine countries, including Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, and the Phillipines.

He returned and served on the Ranger from 1979-1982 after a total of three deployments. During this time he helped his ship win another Ney award, met his wife, Norita, and got married, and also went to Panama City, Fla., to the Naval dive school, serving on the support staff. While running the barracks and the dining halls, Mr. Harkins found the time to attend dive school himself.

"It was a unique set-up because I attended classes when I could and got qualified as a Second Class Diver, but I still continued with my cooking career," said Mr. Harkins.

And when he reached his next ship, the U.S.S. Dale in Mayport, Fla., his cooking career really took off. During a deployment to the Indian Ocean on the Dale, he served dinner to the King of Jordan, the Prime Minister of France, and Johnny Carson and his wife.

He then went to serve at Naval Hospital, Jacksonville, Fla., and the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, winning Ney awards at each.

"It seemed like every command I went to we competed, and we'd win it," said. Mr. Harkins.

While at the Naval hospital, he was part of the deployable medical unit, where he served in Haiti in 1993 supporting a joint medical operation. Ironically, he ran the security force at the fleet hospital, working for the executive officer.

"Being in supply, security is a big factor, because while you're bringing in containers of things on and off the ship all the time, you have to be aware of your surroundings -- it comes as part of the job," said Mr. Harkins.

He then went to the U.S.S. Cable and Naval Hospital, Guam, and his last tour was in Newport, R.I. He retired after 26 years, during which he served five presidents dinner.

"First it was Jimmy Carter, then Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Bush Sr., Bush Jr.," Mr. Harkins said. "Either they came to my ship or to the base for a visit, and we provided a meal for them."

But his most memorable moment was when he made chief.

"The Navy is the only branch of service that separates the chief petty officer, E-7, E-8, E-9, from the enlisted ranks," said Mr. Harkins. "We have our own mess, our own chow hall, our own berthing, the uniform is distinctly different from the other enlisted, and we do that because it separates the senior leadership from the junior leadership -- and it gives you something to strive for," he said.

Mr. Harkins made chief in 12 years and senior chief in 15 years having earned 23 medals and ribbons, including four Navy/Marine Corps Commendation medals, and nine Navy/Marine Corps Achievement medals. With permission by the Secretary of the Navy, he even managed to retire as the last rated Mess Management Specialist senior chief prior to them changing the rate to Culinary Specialist.

Once he retired, he began doing managerial work for a company that owned 15 Wendy's restaurants, but soon realized he still had the itch to travel.

He started working for the Defense Commissary Agency, as a commissary manager. He worked in Kings Bay, Georgia, and Baumholder, Germany, for two years each, and currently works at Lajes Field, Azores.

Mr. Harkins' son continued the military tradition as the commanding officer of his Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps unit at Guam and is currently a junior at Auburn University serving in ROTC.

His daughter just finished her degree in education and is looking to become a teacher.

At the heart of such an impressive military career is someone with a humble character and the willingness to work, making his dreams become a reality.

"When you don't have any idea of what you're gonna' do, and you need a little discipline to help you decide, the military's one of the best places to do that," said Mr. Harkins.

Although Congress adopted a resolution calling for Americans to recognize and honor U.S. service members during May's National Military Appreciation Month, this already comes naturally to most Americans.

It's easy to do when you hear about the perseverance and determination of people like Jim Harkins.