Heritage, honor and service mean everything to Rob Lewis.
They define the Auburn man as someone who is loyal to his family, tribe, crew and country.
For nearly six years in the U.S. Navy, Lewis was a “bubblehead,” a sonar technician on three nuclear-powered submarines. The son of a career Army man, Lewis lived and explored other countries and, when in the Navy, sailed throughout the world, employing special skills and sharing camaraderie with his fellow “brothers” in arms during the post Cold War era.
“To me, that was a way to get ahead in this world,” said Lewis, 48, a Muckleshoot Tribe member, a husband and a father of four, and today a surveillance technician who protects tribal property as if he were back on board protecting his country from threats swirling in international waters.
“Being a veteran to me is a little different than it is for maybe other people,” he said. “I still don’t consider it an identity or anything, but it was an experience that informed and shaped me.”
Bright and ambitious, Lewis left Auburn to learn a trade and find his way. From reading Tom Clancy books, the submarine culture interested him. True to his roots, he wanted to serve his tribe and his namesake state by joining the Navy in 1989. He yearned to be a part of either the USS Olympia or USS Bremerton subs, but was assigned to the USS Flying Fish, and later, served on the USS Baton Rouge and USS Sunfish.
It was interesting duty, Lewis said, mostly routine, occasionally intense.
“It’s its own world, it’s a small world,” he said of the submarine’s tight-knit society. “Once you spend a couple years underwater with folks, you know everything about them.”
Those relationships continue today, as does his devotion to helping and serving others.
Lewis lit up when he recently discovered that the Navy was commissioning a new, state-of-art, fast-attack nuclear submarine at Norfolk, Va., the port where he was once stationed. Intrigued, he and Sonny Bargala, a distinguished Vietnam War veteran of the tribe, went to the Oct. 7 ceremony, bearing gifts.
The newest Virginia class submarine, the USS Washington (SSN 787), shone during a ceremony on board Naval Station Norfolk. The submarine stretches 377 feet long, has a 34-foot beam, can dive to depths greater than 800 feet and operate at speeds in excess of 25 knots submerged. It will operate for more than 30 years without ever refueling.
“It put together the best of all classes,” Lewis said of the new boat. “It’s beautiful … it’s crew professional, unequaled.”
The USS Washington is a flexible, multi-mission platform designed to carry out the seven core competencies of the submarine force: anti-submarine warfare; anti-surface warfare; delivery of special operations forces; strike warfare; irregular warfare; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and mine warfare.
“As I have told the crew on many occasions, they are the most important component of the ship,” said the sub’s commanding officer, Gabriel Cavazos. “They give the ship its personality and warfighting spirit. Without the crew, Washington would not be the warfighting platform she was built to be; however, combine the two, and, together, we are the Blackfish.”
Washington is the fourth U.S. Navy ship, and first submarine, to be named in honor of the state. The previous three ships were an armored cruiser, (ACR 11), which served from 1905 to 1916, the battleship (BB 47) a Colorado-class battleship launched in 1921 and sunk as a gunnery target in 1924 after her construction was halted, and the battleship (BB 56) credited with sinking more enemy tonnage than any other U.S. Navy battleship during World War II, serving from 1941 to 1947.
Lewis and Bargala represented their tribe at the commissioning. They gifted to the crew the Muckleshoot battle flag and two decorated paddles, and gave the “chief” of the boat (COB) a personal feather box containing an eagle feather.
It was much like a tribal ceremony, a right of passage, with an exchange of meaningful, powerful gifts, Lewis said. Many Navy nautical honors stem from tribal traditions, he said.
“We wanted to represent our tribe and be a part of it,” he said. “We wanted to pay that back and return the honor.”
The USS Washington patch symbolizes much of Northwest and Native American culture and tradition, Lewis said, including imagery and art of mighty Mount Rainier and a black orca.
“That really resonated with me,” Lewis said.
The ceremony came at the same pier on exactly the same day during which Lewis was honorably called and saluted before departing from duty to come ashore 22 years ago.
“It took me way back,” he said. “I’m proud and glad to be a part of that.”