Rushville native to command newest U.S. Navy ship

By Clint Andersen

“This is a big deal,” was my first thought when I found out that my high school classmate, Darren Nelson, had been named Commanding Officer of the USS Arlington. However, I had no idea how big of a deal it really was. Having followed Darren’s naval career from a distance, I knew it was an important milestone for a close friend who had gone through the Navy ROTC program and spent a career in the Navy working his way up through the ranks. However, describing this accomplishment as a “big deal” doesn’t even come close to conveying the importance of this monumental occasion. There are several aspects of this event that will help you to understand the magnitude of this once-in-a-lifetime event: the man, the ship, and the responsibility placed in him.

Let’s start with Commander Darren Nelson. A native of Rushville, Nebraska, Darren, the son of Joan Nelson and the late Harvey Nelson, was active in athletics, speech, plays and all the other activities that a small-town high school student should be involved in. He graduated from Rushville High School in 1988 and moved on to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he received his commission and Bachelor of Science degree in December, 1993. His initial sea tour was onboard USS BAINBRIDGE, where he served as Communications Officer and Administrative Officer. His second sea assignment was as Damage Control Officer on the USS BARRY, where he deployed to the Arabian Gulf conducting board, search and seizure operations. Following the Barry, he was assigned to Regional Support Group Ingleside, Texas whose task was to improve the reliability of mine hunting sonar. Upon completion of Department Head School, he served onboard USS Ingraham as the Combat Systems Officer and completed a deployment to the 5th fleet during the initial operations of Enduring Freedom. Subsequently, he was assigned as the 1st Lieutenant onboard USS SAIPAN. During his tour on SAIPAN he conducted the back load of Marines for operation Iraq Freedom. Following his department head tours, he was assigned as the Assistant Surface Operation Officer for Commander Carrier Strike Group Eight. Commander Nelson then served as Executive Officer (XO and second in command) of USS GUNSTON HALL, where he participated in another 5th Fleet deployment. Following his XO tour he was assigned to the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island where he received a Masters of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies. His personal decorations include the Meritorious Service Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal (four awards), Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal (four awards), and various campaign and service ribbons. To those of us who are unfamiliar with the Navy and what all of this means, let me boil it down to terms more easy to understand – in every position he has held, he has done an outstanding job that has not gone unnoticed. In each succeeding appointment, he has shouldered more responsibility and excelled in his duties.

Now, let’s take a look at the ship. This is not just any ship. This is a brand new ship straight from the Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi. The USS Arlington is a San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock. The Arlington was built to transport and land Marines, their equipment and supplies. It supports amphibious assault, special operations, or expeditionary warfare missions. She is named in honor of the September 11 attacks for the county of Arlington, Virginia and honors the first responders and the 184 victims who died when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. There is a special memorial on board the Arlington that honors the victims lost in the Pentagon that day and the first responders from Arlington County, Virginia.

The Arlington is 684 feet long (that’s two football fields, end-to-end), 105 feet wide, and has a displacement (weight) of 25,000 tons. These figures sound big, but they really don’t mean anything unless you compare them to something. Let’s see how they measure up to the most storied U.S. aircraft carrier of World War II – the USS Enterprise (CV-6). The Enterprise was 809 feet long, 108 feet wide, and had a displacement of 25,500 tons when fully loaded. As you can see, the Arlington is a little shorter, yet it is the same width and displacement as the Enterprise!!!

The Arlington is powered by four Colt-Pielstick diesel engines that turn two shafts, churning out 40,000 horsepower to achieve a top speed in excess of 24 mph. It carries a crew of 360 sailors and 700 Marines as well as 4 CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters or 2 MV-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft. It also carries 14 Marine Expeditionary Fighting Vehicles, and the amphibious LCAC (Landing Craft Air Cushion) that will take the Marines and their equipment to shore.

While all of these facts and figures are interesting, and they help to give a sense of the size and scope of the ship, what is really unique is the way the ship performs its function. The Flight Deck (the flat part in the picture) sits directly over what is known as the Well Deck. The Well Deck takes up the rear one-third of the ship and can be flooded with water to a depth of over 10 feet. This allows the LCAC to be loaded with Marines and their equipment while safely inside the ship. When the LCAC is ready to launch, the back door of the Well Deck drops down and the LCAC exits the ship to deliver the Marines to their destination. This is important because the equipment can be driven onto the LCAC while safely inside the Arlington, and the Marines can embark without climbing over the side of the ship 

As one looks at the Arlington, it is impossible not to notice the unique construction of the ship. There are very few “flat” faces on the ship. Rather, the panels making up the ship are connected at a variety of angles. This serves to deflect radar waves away rather than returning them, which gives it a much smaller radar profile to help it blend in and “disappear” from the enemy. What gives the Arlington its distinctive look are the two flat-topped “cones” rising from the top of the ship. Instead of one traditional mast sprouting antennas and radars, these components are housed in the two cones which are made up of a special material that allows the equipment to do its job, while providing “stealth” concealment and protecting these sensitive devices from the elements.

As you may well have guessed by now, to describe what Commander Nelson has accomplished as “a big deal” doesn’t come close to doing him justice. The United States Navy doesn’t put just anyone in charge of a brand new, $1.5 billion warship with the lives of over a thousand sailors and Marines on the line. Commander Nelson has prepared for this moment for all twenty years of his Navy career. 

Watching the events of the commissioning ceremony, it is easy to see why the Navy has placed such trust in Commander Nelson. He is clearly a strong and efficient leader, an effective communicator, and someone that the officers and crew look up to – a genuine role model. One would expect someone with so much power to become aloof or haughty – not so with Commander Nelson. His interactions with his crew are as friendly and genuine as if he is talking with his neighbor on the street. Always quick with a smile, he is the same Darren Nelson that we all remember so well.

Nelson joked during the commissioning ceremony that he never would have believed in high school that he would be commanding a ship one day. He noted that “with a peak capacity of 1,200 people, the entire town of Rushville would fit on the Arlington!” It is truly astounding that a young man from a small town nearly 2,000 miles from the ocean would be chosen to command this country’s newest warship. They say it takes a village to raise a child. If this is true, Rushville, Nebraska is extremely blessed and we all should be very proud to say that we hail from the same community as Commander Darren W. Nelson. 

Oh, yeah…it is a VERY big deal.

Commander Darren Nelson discusses his new position and more

By Clint Andersen

The Commanding Officer of the USS Arlington took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his career, life on the sea, and what prepared him to command the Navy’s newest ship.

What made you decide to join the Navy? 

I have always wanted to join the military and I was going to enlist in the Air Force. My dad told me that if I wanted to join, I had to go to college first and get an education, then I could join as an officer. I applied for the Air Force ROTC at UN-L, but before I signed all the paper work they told me they were going to close the unit at Lincoln, so I joined the Navy ROTC. One week after signing up for the Navy ROTC, the Air Force called me and told me that they had decided not to close the unit and asked if I was still interested. I politely told them no and that I had joined the Navy ROTC.

What do you enjoy most about the Navy? 

I enjoy working with the country’s best and brightest sailors every day. Especially now that I am older it really keeps me young working with our sailors, most of whom are in their early twenties.

What is the best thing about being at sea? 

It’s hard to describe, but it’s really peaceful during calm seas to be able to look to the horizon and see nothing but water and feel the breeze of the salt air on your face.

In your 20 years in the Navy, how has technology changed your communication with loved ones at home? 

There have been dramatic changes in communications with our families. During my first tour, we relied on regular US Mail. I received a letter from my wife two weeks after returning home. On my second tour, we had only one email account for the entire ship and emails had to have the name of the sailor in the subject line. The emails would be printed out and distributed to the sailors. There were also limits on how long the email could be (about ¾ of a page). Now we have near-instant emails and we have the ability to call home via satellite phones as long as it’s a local call from our home base. 

In high school, what prepared you the most for what you do today? 

I would have to say my experiences on the speech team. Mrs. Wellnitz and Mrs. J (Johnson) really prepared me to be able to speak in front of a large audience. Last Saturday during the Commissioning was the largest crowd I have ever given a speech in front of (approximately 5,000 people).

Has commanding a ship always been a goal of yours? If not, when did you realize that it may be a possibility some day? 

No it hasn’t. I didn’t set that high of a goal for myself originally. I didn’t really want CO (Commanding Officer) until I was in my Executive Officer tour. That’s when I really wanted it and was lucky enough to be selected for Command.

Is it unique for an officer’s first command to be aboard a brand new ship? 

The Navy only commissions two to three ships a year, so being selected to command a pre-commissioning ship is limited. 

The Arlington is nearly the size of a WWII aircraft carrier with over a thousand crew and Marines, what an awesome responsibility… Being the Commanding Officer of any warship is a great responsibility no matter how big the ship is. It is a task that I do not take lightly and I am always on watch making sure we operate the ship safely and we take care of our crew, making sure they are properly trained so when the time comes, they react correctly and they don’t have to think about it. 

I think the Arlington’s draft is 23 feet, how close to the coast would you normally be when you offload the LCAC? 

It all depends on the coast line of where you are going to offload. The quicker the water depth drops off the coast the closer you can get. The LCACs do have the capability to be launched from over the horizon which gives the element of surprise. The LCACs can travel faster than 35 knots (40 mph) so they can go from over the horizon to the beach in less than 30 minutes. 

The LCAC is an amazing vehicle. You have so many technologically advanced pieces of equipment on board, what do you find the most interesting of all the things you’ve seen? 

Being a former 1st LT and in charge of the well deck, I always love well deck operations. The ability to sink the ship down by the stern and bring 8 feet of water into the well deck and bring in several different landing craft is always amazing. We can bring in LCACs (landing craft air cushion), LCU (Landing Craft Utility), Mike 6/8 boats (smaller LCUs), and several different special operations craft. The versatility of this ship is so amazing and one of the many things that make this ship an ideal platform for many different missions.

What is the most rewarding thing about being a Navy officer? 

Being able to lead and teach our navy sailors. There is nothing quite like promoting a junior sailor or giving them an award for meritorious service.

What is the most challenging thing about being a Navy officer? 

Balancing work with personal life is the hardest challenge. With the Navy life I miss a lot of birthdays, anniversaries, and my children’s events like school events or sports games.

How long do you plan to continue going out to sea? Would you ever consider a desk job? 

In my career I only have one or two more sea tours left. I really love going to sea and working with sailors. When you’re on shore duty, you don’t really get to do that so when my sea tours run out I will probably retire. 

When the Arlington goes to sea, will it be alone or as part of a group? 

Right now ARLINGTON still has a lot of tests and trials to complete before we can be put into a deploying Amphibious Readiness Group(ARG). Arlington is not scheduled to deploy until 2015. In the meantime, we will operate at sea by ourselves until we complete all our trials and certifications. 

You spent the last two years in Mississippi with the ship under construction, what was the most rewarding part of that process? 

Just getting to watch the ship come together and go from a half-built ship to the mighty warship that she is today. It was also rewarding watching the sailors go from a bunch of individuals to a consolidated team.

What is the most exciting/interesting thing you have done in the Navy? 

There have been so many different things that I have been able to do in the Navy. I have been able to travel all over the world and see so many different countries like Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Israel, Turkey, France, UAE, Bahrain, Thailand, Singapore, and Japan just to name a few. I have been able to participate in Operation Iraqi freedom, Enduring Freedom, conduct Visit Board Search and Seizure operations as well as Anti-Piracy, firing missiles and guns for training purposes. The list goes on and on.

You are very well versed in Naval history, why is it important to have an appreciation for history? 

Understanding our heritage and our legacy is important. We learn from those that have gone before us and we learn from the things that they did right as well as the things that they didn’t do right. Understanding that makes us better officers and sailors and prepares us for the next time we are called to fight for our great nation. 

What would you say to a high school sophomore or junior that may be considering the Navy? 

The Navy gives you the opportunity to see the world. No other branch of the military travels to as many different parts of the world. The Navy defends the world’s sea lanes of communication. 70% of all goods are shipped via the world’s seas. If you really want to be part of a team that makes a difference throughout the world, there is no better team than the United States Navy.

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