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Ole Miss Alumni Review: Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus ‘At The Helm’

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus addresses sailors on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan as it arrives at Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Japan. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Paolo Bayas/Released
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus addresses sailors on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan as it arrives at Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Japan. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Paolo Bayas/Released

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus (BA 69) manages a $170 billion budget and is responsible for the well-being of more than 900,000 enlisted personnel stationed on ships or at naval bases around the world. A big job, and whenever the weight of his position gets too heavy for his shoulders, he gazes at six small, round glass jars sitting on a window ledge across from his desk. Each jar holds sand collected from a beach the Marines invaded during World War II.

“It’s a reminder of the importance of what I do,” Mabus says quietly from his office in the Pentagon. “I visited each of those sites. I look at those jars and feel humbled, then awestruck by what those Marines accomplished.”

Asked if he ever feels overwhelmed by his responsibilities, Mabus breaks into a gentle laugh.

“Overwhelmed, no. Amazed, yes. Back when I was governor of Mississippi, I was young and kept expecting someone to come up to me and say, ‘Hey, kid, get out of here, the governor’s coming.’ My secret weapon is I work with the best people in the world. In fact, I have the best job in America.”

Mabus delivers remarks at the 240th Marine Corps Ball in Azerbaijan. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Armando Gonzales/Released
Mabus delivers remarks at the 240th Marine Corps Ball in Azerbaijan. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class
Armando Gonzales/Released

Mabus has been secretary of the Navy since 2009 — the longest-serving leader of the Navy and Marine Corps since World War I and the fifth longest in the 240-year history of the armed forces. Under his watch, shipbuilding increased from five per year to now having 70 vessels under contract. Mabus promotes environmentalism through the Great Green Fleet program and mandated the Navy to develop alternate sources of energy and cut its reliance on fossil fuels in half by 2020.

In recognition of the stress that servicemen and women undergo while on active duty — especially since the second Gulf War — he inaugurated programs such as the 21st Century Sailor and Marine Initiative, which offers counseling programs for personnel in the service who are having difficulties coping with the strain of battle, and career and emotional counseling for those transitioning out of the service.

Bryan Clark, a retired Navy submarine commander and now senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonprofit public policy research group that focuses on national defense, says Mabus “is doing a terrific job focusing on essential missions to improve the Navy, both from within and without. He’s also initiated the role of being an interlocutor between our Navy and the navies of our partners throughout the world. He’s done quite a lot of traveling during his time in office.”

During the last Mideast conflict, Mabus traveled to Afghanistan 12 times to meet with sailors and Marines deployed in combat zones. He continues traveling today, logging more than 1.1 million miles and visiting more than 140 countries since taking office. But no matter where he goes, he takes a little bit of America with him.

“Last year, I watched the Ole Miss football team play Arkansas on my cell phone in Tajikistan,” he says with a grin.

Support for Service Personnel

Clark appreciates that Mabus understands how important it is to improve the personal lives of servicemen and women.

“The challenge facing Navy and Marine Corps personnel at the tail end of our role in Afghanistan was they were dealing with a lot of stress,” Clark says. “There were a lot of suicides in the military, and a rise in sexual assault, drug use and behavioral issues. A decade of war takes a toll on soldiers.”

Mabus speaks with media after the christening ceremony of the future littoral combat ship USS Detroit at Marinette Marine Corp. shipyard in Marinette, Wis. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Sam Shavers/Released

To alleviate some of that stress, the 21st Century Sailor and Marine Initiative is an umbrella program that unites and expands a slew of supportive programs that previously existed as separate entities. New items include the Safe Harbor Program, where wounded personnel (pertaining to both physical wounds and emotional scars associated with post-traumatic stress disorder) will receive both physical and mental health care — even if all the person needs is a ride to a Veterans Affairs hospital or an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Under the Transition Assistance Program, people leaving the military can get help seeking education and career training to make an easier transition to the private sector.

“We also want to make the military service more family friendly,” Mabus says. “Women are a valuable asset to the military, and we recognize that we need to do more to keep them in the service.”

To that end, in 2009, Mabus pushed for women having more of a role in combat, including serving on battleships and submarines. That feeling was recently echoed by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who ordered the military to open all jobs to women, including those at dangerous and grueling posts.

“We’d lose a lot of women because they’d want to start a family, or they’d leave to take care of an aging parent or loved one,” Mabus says. “Besides tripling paid maternity leave, we now open child care centers on bases two hours earlier and close them two hours later. We also offer the Career Intermission Program, where people can take up to three years off during their service to take care of personal matters and then return to active duty.”

Another innovative program is the Secretary of the Navy Tour of Industry, where people can spend a year working at a company such as Amazon, Facebook or Google, and later return with both career experience and new skills that can be applied to military life.

Environmental Concerns

Mabus has also paid attention to energy usage not only to protect the environment but also to protect personnel.

“Fuel can be used as a weapon,” Mabus says, explaining why he wants to change the way the Navy and Marine Corps produce and acquire energy. “At the height of the war [in Afghanistan], we were losing one Marine for every fuel convoy brought in. That’s why we need to focus on our energy usage, to make us better fighters.”

In a 2012 speech at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo., Mabus said, “We wouldn’t allow some of the places that we buy fossil fuels from to build our ships, to build our aircrafts or to build our ground equipment. … And yet we give them say on whether those ships sail or whether those aircrafts fly or whether those vehicles run, because we buy fuel from them. Why would we do that if we don’t have to? The less we depend on foreign oil, the more secure we become as a nation.”

Mabus has set a goal of relying on alternative sources to supply at least 50 percent of the Navy’s and Marine Corps’ energy needs by 2020. In 2012, the Navy unveiled the Great Green Fleet, a carrier strike group of which every participating ship and aircraft operates on alternative energy sources such as nuclear energy and biofuels.

“Our newer ships now need to refuel less often,” Mabus says. “They’re cleaner and quieter. And our Marine field teams are using solar and other alternate energy forms to purify water so they can stay out in the field much longer.”

And in an effort to create more efficient energy sources, the goal is to produce one gigawatt of renewable energy at naval bases and Marine Corps installations — that’s 50 percent of total shore energy needed.

Mabus discusses ethics and its importance in leadership with students, staff and faculty during an all-hands call at the U.S. Naval War College. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Sam Shavers/Released

In July 2015, the Navy signed an agreement to build a 210-megawatt direct current solar plant that would feed power to 14 facilities across the country. More than 650,000 photovoltaic panels on ground-mounted, horizontal single-axis trackers will be installed, providing a third of the energy needed to power the Navy and Marine Corps installations. Adding solar power to naval installations will provide long-term cost stability, which ultimately contributes to the Navy’s energy security priorities. The project is slated for completion by the end of 2016.

But security and combat effectiveness aren’t the only reasons Mabus is committed to upgrading the military’s energy use.

“We’re also concerned about climate change,” he says. “We all need to be better stewards of the environment.”

Education First

Mabus grew up in Ackerman watching minor league baseball and Ole Miss football. Though he dreamed of being a major leaguer every time he wore a mitt or donned a helmet, his hero wasn’t a sports star.

“I’ve only had one hero in my life — my father, Raymond (BSCvE 22),” he says. “I was 38 years old when he died, and in those 38 years I never heard him raise his voice. He was always kind and was one of the bravest people I’ve ever met. During the civil rights movement in the ’60s, he always talked about the dignity and the equality of all people.”

After graduating summa cum laude from Ole Miss in 1969 and winning the Taylor Medal in political science the same year, he earned a master’s degree in political science at Johns Hopkins University and a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School. After Johns Hopkins, Mabus served in the Navy as an officer aboard the cruiser USS Little Rock.

“What I learned at Ole Miss has stayed with me throughout my life,” Mabus says. “Ole Miss offered the type of education everyone should get. People at the school cared about me. They’re the reason I became so interested in public education: Education is the one skill that can guarantee you the opportunity for success. There are no jobs today for people with strong backs and weak minds.”

When Mabus was elected governor of Mississippi in 1988, he made public education a priority by passing the Better Education for Success Tomorrow program, which gave teachers the largest pay raise in the U.S. Fortune magazine named him one of the 10 best “education governors.”

Terry Cassreino (BA 85) was the Capitol bureau chief for the Biloxi Sun Herald during Mabus’ tenure as governor. Today, he teaches English and journalism at St. Joseph Catholic School in Jackson and remembers Mabus as a “down-home nice person who really had the goodness of the state at heart.

“He believed wholeheartedly in public education,” Cassreino says. “He thought an educated populace was the best way to attract business to the state. I was always impressed by him as governor, as I am now in his role as secretary of the Navy.”

Studying at Harvard also reignited Mabus’ love for baseball, and today, the die-hard Boston Red Sox fan claims a record feat — he’s thrown a ceremonial first pitch in each major league ball park. At the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in July 2015, in Cooperstown, N.Y., Mabus named the Navy’s newest warship USS Cooperstown, to honor the 62 Hall of Fame members who have served in the military.

While Mabus is proud of his achievements, the most important aspect of his job is the men and women he is privileged to serve alongside.

“I can’t express the overwhelming feeling of pride I have for every single Marine and sailor I’ve met, whether they’re soldiers on the ground or in the air,” Mabus says. “They’re all volunteers, and every single one is a hero.”

By Benjamin Gleisser

This story was reprinted with permission from the Ole Miss Alumni Review. The Alumni Review is published quarterly for members of the Ole Miss Alumni Association. Join or renew your membership with the Alumni Association today, and don’t miss a single issue.

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