By Jeff Wolfe
Some people have what seems like a natural ability to accomplish remarkable things no matter what their circumstances.
When 1988 Kingsway High School graduate Robert Stumm won the state pole vault title as a senior, he found out years later he did so with a broken back. After two years of competing in the decathlon at the University of Tennessee, he decided to join the Navy. Stumm then went on to win the Navy’s Sailor of the Year honor in 2001 and now just this past February, he was honored with the Navy’s Waging Peace Award and the Navy Achievement Medal.
The still unassuming Stumm isn’t exactly sure how he won his latest honor, but he does have a good reason as to why he won it.
“I think I was just doing my job to the best of my ability,” Stumm said in a mid-April interview. “I was noticed, I believe, for all that my division accomplished over the last year.”
Stumm is a Senior Chief Petty Officer in the Navy and is assigned to the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. It’s an aircraft carrier that is a landing place for various types of military air vehicles all around the world.
“The number of sorties we flew and the support and effort of this entire command and the support of Operation Guarding Freedom, it was rewarding,” Stumm said. “I received this award on behalf of the other fine shipmates that I have. They are an outstanding group that I work with and that I work for. I just happen to be the one that won the award. There are hundreds of others here that deserve more or at least that.
“It’s humbling and there are a lot of significant individuals and a lot of individual efforts on board that have been award worthy. To be the guy to actually receive the award was pretty phenomenal.”
The Waging Peace award is given by the Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership in Washington, D.C. The Waging Peace award is given to an outstanding Chief/Senior Chief/Master Chief Petty Officer.
The USS Eisenhower commanding officer, Capt. Stephen Koehler, said Stumm is quite deserving of the attention.
“If you’re looking for a guy to emulate, he’s it,” Koehler said. “He cares about his people, he cares about the job, and he cares about the ship. Only after does he think of himself.”
Stumm often has to think about a lot as he leads 170 sailors who work on the flight deck launching and recovering military aircraft in support of the U.S. military.
Part of the Stennis Center’s mission is to strengthen understanding and relationships between civilian leaders and the military. The award winners travel to Washington, D.C., where they meet with members of Congress and congressional staff and other civilian leaders. It is there that they each learn about the other’s vocations.
Stumm admits though, that his vocation is not like many others. He says his Navy experience has taken him to places such as Turkey, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Haiti and Cuba.
It was in Cuba at Guantanamo Bay, where some foreign prisoners are kept, that he had what was probably one of his most intense experiences.
“I was stationed in Cuba, during that time and there was a riot with detainees,” Stumm said. “I was a first responder with that riot and that was a significant event that happened in Cuba. Basically, we had to quell the riot without trying to injure anyone and make sure the guard staff was taken into consideration, too.”
It was in 2001 that the Navy took Stumm’s accomplishments into consideration and named him one of its Sailors of the Year. Stumm, who said he was stationed on the USS Nassau at that time, believes he won that honor for the rapid advancement rate of First Class Petty Officers and also using a program that allowed that USS Nassau to naturalize about 100 citizens that year.
“Some things carry more weight than others,” he said. “That was a neat program that we were able to do to naturalize citizens.”
Stumm said interest in the Navy came natural to him thanks to his grandfather.
“I had a grandfather who was a Coast Guard officer,” Stumm said. “I had thought about it frequently. Typically, you think about the Navy Seals, as a young guy. You think that would be something you would like to do. But I mostly joined as a way to better myself and I think help support my family. I wanted to be a part of something that was bigger than myself and part of something that was important to our country.”
But even Stumm admits that after his first seven years in the Navy, he was starting to have some big questions about how much longer he was going to stay in. He actually had decided he was going to leave the Navy, but the Navy had other ideas.
“I hadn’t really thought I would stay forever,” Stumm said of his Navy career. “I had put in to get out after seven years. I was stationed in Germany and then was visited by a Special Force Master Chief in Europe. He made a special trip and came to find out why a guy like me would like to get out, so he came to visit me.
“My wife was pregnant at the time and I had new orders to go to Japan. I just really wanted to go back to the U.S. and move on with life. This Master Chief talked to me and flipped the switch for me. Two years later I was a Sailor of the Year on the USS Nassau and it was at that time that I wanted to do something significant and that I thought this was something I could do forever at that point.”
What does sometimes feel like forever is the deployments out to sea. Stumm said deployments usually last between six to eight months, but can go as long as one year. Currently, the USS Eisenhower is on a 14-month planned docking at the Norfolk Navy Shipyard. That has allowed Stumm to spend some time with his family, which includes his wife Kelly and children Ashley, Sydney, and Preston, who live in the Norfolk area. But he still has to report to work each day.
“After a deployment we have 12 days off then we come back,” Stumm said. “Then we come back to work. We have personnel issues that never stop and we go from a mission oriented mode to maintenance and personnel oriented work.”
Stumm said when the ship and its crew are out at sea, there are things to break the monotony to help keep morale positive for those on board.
“You become acclimated to being out at sea,” Stumm said. “The morale welfare personnel, they have all kinds of activities that they can have us do on board. They having a driving range on board that is inflatable and there is volleyball and dodgeball and things of that nature.
“Frequently you have that ability to do things. Then on Sundays there are usually other fun activities for the crew. And there are movies and there is email to help pass the time when we are not actually operating. It helps keep people focused when you can give them some down time.”
Stumm isn’t sure exactly how much more time he will spend in the Navy, but he knows he will be on the USS Eisenhower for at least two more years.
“I’ve been in for 21 years and I have been extended two more years to stay on the Ike,” he said. “Hopefully I will be able to contribute.”
Stumm said he also hopes to earn the rank of Master Chief and then maybe eventually reach the rank of Command Master Chief to become the liaison between officers and enlisted personnel.
“That position is the fulcrum for ensuring that a mission is carried out,” Stumm said. “The officers and the chief are there to support each other.”
Kind of like the way that pole vault pole used to support Stumm, back when he first realized he could reach new heights, regardless of the circumstances.