By Sarah Geegan
There's just no telling where an education from the University of Kentucky can take you.
For U.S. Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Smith, the journey that began at UK has taken him around the world and deep below the ocean's surface, as captain of the USS Kentucky, a nuclear submarine.
"Having been born in Kentucky and growing up there, I can’t imagine any pride greater than serving as commander of the ship that bears my home state's name," says Smith, whose parents and sister still live in Kentucky.
Born in Covington and raised in Independence, Smith graduated from Simon Kenton High School and attended Xavier University for a year before transferring to UK. After graduating in 1995 with a bachelor's degree in physics, Smith was commissioned in the Navy and went to officer candidate school in Pensacola, Fla., where he began nuclear power training.
At 39, Smith is the youngest commanding officer of an Ohio-class submarine. The Kentucky — 560 feet long and 42 feet in diameter, and producing around 18,000 tons of displacement — is about the size of the largest ships that worked during World War II. It has a crew complement of 160, and it is capable of sinking more than 800 feet and traveling faster than 25 knots. ("That's pretty much freeway speed for a submarine," Smith says.) The Kentucky's primary mission, as a strategic nuclear deterrent, is to provide a credible, survivable launch platform for ballistic missiles from sea.
The ship is really a world of its own, Smith says, and it's a complex world with tens of thousands of moving parts. For the commander of the Kentucky, a day's work involves taking care of the ship and making sure its crew members are prepared for any situation they could face while at sea.
"Life aboard a nuclear submarine is all about mitigating risk, while still making sure that you are able to perform your mission," Smith says. "A submarine at sea is really a dangerous environment. Everywhere within reach, there are cables carrying high-voltage electricity. There are pipes containing rapidly moving sea water. There are high-pressure hydraulics lines. And we live constantly within just a few feet of the most unforgiving, deadly, crushing environment, right on the other side of our hull — the deep sea. It's of paramount importance that we keep it on the other side of that hull."
A naval submarine will operate at sea for about 50 to 100 days before coming back to port for a couple of months, during which time it undergoes a regimen of critical maintenance and a crew rotation. The Kentucky has two crews, a Blue Team and a Gold Team. Smith commands both.
While the Kentucky is under way, the daily routine is one of training, planning and maintenance. Breakfast begins at 05:00 (5 a.m.) and is over by 06:30, at which time the crew receives briefings before commencing drills at 08:00. Drills consist of simulations of various different situations that could be encountered aboard the ship, such as fires, floodings and casualties.
On some days, the crew performs strategic exercises, in which the crew practices the tasks they could be asked to perform while on a mission — everything from processing messages to walking through a strategic launch. This part of the day is usually done by 15:00 (3 p.m.), followed by a few hours of planning, training and debriefing before dinner at 17:00 hours. There's usually a movie for the crew around 20:00, and then it's lights out.
Running parallel to that daily routine, the ship maintains a regular watch schedule, in which at any given time, one third of the crew is manning a watch station on their part of the ship. The watch shifts run for six hours in an 18-hour rotation.
In port, the routine centers around maintenance, with anywhere from 50 to 150 separate scheduled maintenance items every time the ship comes in.
"The scheduled maintenance on a car is a good comparison," Smith says. "Think of all of the things that you have to check on your car every 5,000 miles. Well, a submarine is a lot bigger and a lot more complex than a car. And a typical car owner might keep their car for five or six years, while a submarine has to last for 40. So we have to ensure that the ship is in good shape for another whole generation of submariners."
Smith says he works conscientiously to instill a sense of Kentucky pride in his crew. One of the first things he did after taking command was to implement "Go Big Blue!" as the ship's rallying cry. He ends every shipboard announcement over the loudspeaker with that call, and the crew echoes it back.
"I think you'll find it's true, on any of the ships named after a state, that the commanders will try to get the whole state-pride thing going among the crew," Smith says. "I have just a little extra fire in my belly, being a native of Kentucky and a graduate of UK. My crew definitely know that we're representing a great state."
Smith says the education he received at UK has helped to prepare him for his role in the Navy in ways he couldn't even have imagined when he was a student some 20 years ago.
"The experience that I had in college — not just in physics, but the whole multidisciplinary aspect of what college is — has served me very well throughout my career," he says. "I use the physics every day, and the engineering and math. But there's also philosophy --- particularly the connection between philosophy and anthropology: How do we live in a multinational society? There's psychology, which helps me to be able to interpret the reactions of my crew in an objectively harsh environment. I use business management and financial accounting. Even the Russian I studied has served me well. There was not a single class that I took at UK that I have not gone back and leveraged in my career at some point."
A lifelong Wildcat fan, Smith says he was thrilled to see the Cats bring home their eighth NCAA Championship this year. He offers his own, admittedly biased, take on bracketology:
"I tell my fellow officers that when you pick your bracket for the NCAA tournament, you need to realize that there is a Center of Awesomeness in the Universe, which is Rupp Arena, and the farther any team is based from there, the less of a chance they are going to have of making it to the Final Four."
Smith is also father to four children. In his spare time, he enjoys reading broadly on diverse topics, including philosophy, poetry and music. He is an avid video gamer, who welcomes challenges from his crew in just about any game imaginable.
"I try to remain as interdisciplinary as possible," he says.