By Lt. Andrew Kirchert
It was an exciting week aboard NAS Jacksonville as Patrol Squadron (VP) 30 hosted the ninth annual Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Force (MPRF) Symposium. The weeklong event spanning April 24-28 was attended by more 400 active duty, retired and civilian personnel. With harrowing tales from a Pearl Harbor survivor and a photo finish 5K run, this year's symposium is one for the history books.
Although not officially part of the symposium, VP-30 started the week with their annual Command Photograph. It was an impressive sight to see the Navy's largest squadron in whites standing proudly with their leader, Capt. David Whitehead, out front, but something else set this event apart. Behind the men and women of VP-30 stood the mighty P-3C Orion, P-8A Poseidon and the Navy's newest Unmanned Aircraft System, the MQ-4C Triton.
As Commander, Patrol and Reconnaissance Group, Rear Adm. Kyle Cozad stated, "We are a community in transition."
The MPRF community saw many of these changes in 2016 and 2017 as VP-26 and VP-4 were transitioned from P-3C to the new P-8A. Along with the increasing number of P-8 squadrons, Unmanned Patrol Squadron 19, the first Triton squadron, was established.
With eyes fixed toward the future, it was humbling to pause to hear our past from those who came before us and made the MPRF community the robust force it is today.
The VP-30 auditorium was packed with military members both active and retired, April 26 who anticipated stories from three guest speakers - retired Lt. Cmdr. Ed LaFontaine, retired Lt. Cmdr. Louis Conter and retired AMM3C Merrill Churchill.
Churchill spoke first about his active duty service during World War II. He was a plane captain in PB4Y-2 attached to VPB-111. One of his most memorable experiences was a touch and go landing at Changi Point, China only four days before the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
LaFontaine continued the historic oration with his acts of heroism as a PB4Y pilot with VPB-111 during WWII. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his 25 combat patrol missions in the Philippine Islands.
Conter was the last guest speaker of the day and enshrined the room with awe at his exploits. He began his naval career as a quartermaster aboard USS Arizona making $21 dollars a month. Conter was aboard USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Of the 1,512 personnel on board, Conter and 334 others were the only survivors. He went on to become a pilot and flew 29 combat missions in Korea. Conter was shot down twice and received the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor for his actions. Later in his career, he went on to establish the United States Navy's Survival, Evasion, and Resistance and Escape program.
The afternoon continued with the Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Weapons School recognizing the most tactically proficient combat aircrew in the wing. Each year, combat aircrews from around the wing get a chance to be recognized for their tactical prowess. During this year's Fleet Antisubmarine Warfare Challenge, Combat Air Crew 7 from VP-8 took the honors.
Attention shifted later in the day to the future of MPRF, the MQ-4C Triton. Cozad took center stage at a ribbon cutting ceremony for the newly constructed Triton facility. Emphasis was placed on the partnership with Northrop Grumman and the future of the maritime community. The ceremony concluded with a building tour for the distinguished visitors.
The festivities continued on into the evening as the annual heritage dinner kicked off. The affair took place in the historic Hangar 117 aboard NAS Jacksonville and included more than 200 guests. The 2017 MPA motto, "Global Maritime Partnerships, Built to Endure," became evident as the heritage dinner progressed.
Among the attendees were representatives from the United Kingdom Royal Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force and Royal Norwegian Air Force. The evening kicked off in military fashion with a parading of the colors. The Maritime Patrol Association was proud to have Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey, Defense Security Cooperation Agency director, in attendance.
This year, the MPRF community inducted two heroes into the Hall of Honor. Conter earned the recognition for his brave exploits in World War II and Air Commodore Leonard Joseph Birchall of the Royal Canadian Air Force, was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Honor for his actions in World War II where he saved a Royal Navy Fleet, was shot down and subsequently spent more than three years as a prisoner of war.
The symposium continued April 27 with the sixth annual spouse symposium. The original concept began in 2011 with Sheila Stevens, wife of former VP-30 Commanding Officer Capt. Mark Stevens. The symposium provides a means of support and understanding for military spouses as they navigate the challenges of military service.
In attendance were spouses with as little as one year of military support, to those who have supported a military career that has spanned over three decades.
Cozad summed it up, stating, "Every one of you makes a positive impact on the Navy. I have two simple words for you - thank you."
More than 200 people gathered for the annual golf tournament. The winning four-ball team was Curtis O'Neal, Dave Stuckey, Ben Hayes and Josh Lowery with a score of 19 under par.
A 5K run consisted of 65 runners ending with a photo finish. Albert Brannan came in second place at 19:57, being defeated by only one second when Zachary Bischoff crossed the finish line at 19:56.
With the week at a close, the MPRF community set its sights back to the mission at hand. The upcoming year will be full of challenges as the P-3C to P-8A transition pushes forward with VP-47 and the Triton continues to evolve.