Getting his sea legs

The passageways of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington can seem like an alien environment to most, but Master Chief Firecontrolman Walter Ritchie has called U.S. Navy ships home for the past 34 years.

Shunning the comforts of "shore duty," Ritchie has elected to spend his entire career with sea-going commands.

"I have been assigned to five service school commands for training and 12 U.S. Navy ships, temporary additional duty to one Australian Navy destroyer escort, one British destroyer escort and one USNS replenishment ship," Ritchie said.

A first-grade classroom in Sequim may seem an unlikely place for a naval career to begin, but according to Ritchie, an iconic recruiting poster tacked on the wall with one simple line was all it took.

"It was an 11- by 18- (inch) poster, to the left side of the door, at eyeball level," said Ritchie. "On it was Uncle Sam pointing and saying, 'I Want You,' with U.S. Navy written on the top and on the bottom was, 'Sailors Get Sea Pay.' I'm 51 now and that was 45 years ago and I can still picture that."

Walter Ritchie, a Sequim native, has spent 34 years at sea. He’s Master Chief Firecontrolman aboard the USS George Washington. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy

Seeing the world

Ritchie has been on the front lines for some of the most important events in recent history. On Jan. 3, 1991, he entered the Persian Gulf; on the 17th of that month Desert Storm started.

"We launched 29 Tomahawk missiles that day, but only 28 left, one did not leave and it burnt the bulkhead and the deck," said Ritchie. "On the 3rd of February, we were dumping 16-inch rounds on a place called Faylaka Island near Kuwait City, and on the 20th of March we left the gulf."

In more than three decades at sea, Ritchie has visited far-flung corners of the globe and seen things both light-hearted and poignant.

"On my third ship, the commanding officer made me miss ship's movement. The morning we were to get under way from Subic Bay (Philippines), the captain decided that he wanted a popcorn machine for the crew," said Ritchie. "So the ship's sales officer and I were told to go get a popcorn machine. When we got back to the pier the ship was gone and we had the machine and the two of us got onto a tug boat and they took us out to meet the ship."

He also can recall visiting East Timor and seeing the poverty pervasive in much of the rest of the world.

"We went there and we painted some school classrooms. I spent the entire time I was there in the schools. When the Indonesians left Timor, they had taken everything, and I mean everything, down to the wires on the telephone poles to sell the copper in them. It made me feel good to help these people out and I could tell they were extremely grateful for it," Ritchie said.

"I wish we had more money when we went there. The Navy spent $1 million on gas to get over there and had less than $1,000 in (community relations) money that we could spend. If we had gone there with at least $25,000, we would have done a greater good for that community," Ritchie said.

Through the years, Ritchie said he is thankful for the education the Navy has given him and the opportunities he has had.

A mentor at sea

Electrician's Mate 3rd Class Claire Bailey said that Ritchie always has been there when she needed him.

"Master Chief always has a smile on his face. I've never come into his office and not seen him smiling. Not only is he always happy, but he's always ready to help his shipmates whenever they have a problem or issue," said Bailey.

Ritchie also offered advice to junior sailors to set their naval careers on a course for success.

"Stay in control of your actions, as you will benefit or suffer the consequences of them. Two, take full advantage of every type of education the Navy provides. And three, submit a statement every time you sign your evals (evaluations)," said Ritchie.

"We've been taught or rather reinforced over the years that a statement is a bad thing; that's not true. It's a statement to the record. Because when you sign your eval you're saying, 'This is all I did.' Every command looks at things differently and what they put in your evals are things they think you will need.

"I've applied for another sea billet after this command; I'm not looking forward to retiring," Ritchie said.

"I know I'm going to cry when I get back to shore. The only way I'm getting out is if the Navy kicks me out, but if they decide to send me to shore, then I'm leaving. Life is for living, and that is what I do."

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