Salute to Veterans: Reflecting on a career in 'silent service'
Like the underwater vehicles they operate, the United States Navy's submarine force lurks under the surface — out of sight and mind of most Americans. Some refer to it as the "silent service."
But according to Lake Oswego resident Brian Altman, a former submariner and longtime reservist, the work they can do for their country is invaluable.
"Submarines are really key to our defense because they can sneak in undetected and do things," he said.
Altman's career in the Navy included manning submarines in the Western Pacific during the Cold War, helping lead supply efforts for Operation Desert Storm, and managing resources and reserve deployment as the vice commander of submarine forces.
Altman did not consider enlisting in the armed forces during his childhood in Atlanta and Birmingham but was recruited by the Navy due to his academic background in industrial engineering. He couldn't see himself sitting in an office and, after graduating from the University of Alabama, he decided to attend candidate school and entered a program to become a nuclear engineer for the Navy. There, he learned how to operate a nuclear power plant in Idaho.
Altman noted that the Navy needs officers with such expertise to man the submarines and aircraft carriers, which depend on nuclear energy. Following this training, he spent a year taking classes in submarine warfare — specifically learning how to navigate a submarine and brave an attack.
After graduation, he chose to join "fast attack" submarines, which have less predictable deployments, as opposed to the more regimented ballistic missile submarine program.
"For a single guy, that's pretty boring. I wanted to see the world," he said.
Altman said he could not go into detail about the missions he embarked on in the Western Pacific but that they involved gathering intelligence during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
"We would snoop around and listen to things, try to get intelligence so if you ever fight these guys, you know what they've got," he said.
His typical day consisted of three six-hour increments — managing the nuclear power plant for six hours, performing and planning for training and navigating the submarine. He once went 20 days without a shower, and sleep was also not a high priority.
The Lake Oswego resident said he realized early on that he wasn't quite as smart as he initially thought — and that his colleagues were some of the brightest and kindest people he's ever met. He remains in touch with them to this day.
"You have something that was really challenging to all of us that we shared, and so the bond becomes that much closer," he said.
Altman went on these six-month excursions for three years before retiring from the reserve in 1989. However, soon after that, he was recalled to active duty after Operation Desert Storm — helping to fill six ships a day with bombs while stationed on the East Coast.
And Altman continued to lend a hand even after moving to the reserves. During 23 years, he held numerous positions, including his final one as a vice commander, where he oversaw 59 units and 1,600 people. The main task of his job was to provide personnel and resources to the Navy from the submarine reserve force when needed. For instance, he managed the deployment of reservists to Japan to help the country in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
"You were the guy in charge. When you say jump, people jump," Altman said.
Altman emphasized the sacrifices the armed forces make for their country, noting that his only regret was not seeing his wife and kids as much as he would have liked. Still, he felt he made a positive contribution and grew a greater sense of patriotism as he aged.
"I sacrificed a lot of my time in the work I did. The fact that my wife allowed me to do that, and supported me, big thanks to her," he said.
Editor's note: This story appears in Salute to Veterans, a special publication in print and online by Pamplin Media Group to celebrate the stories of veterans.
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