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Navy ship provides Beaverton grad a conduit for talents

by: U.S. NAVY PHOTO BY PETTY OFFICER 1ST CLASS ERIC BROWN - U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class David Nguyen, an electrician serving aboard USS Arlington (LPD 24), uses a multi-meter to ensure a test switchboard is de-energized in the amphibious transport dock ship’s Motor Rewind Shop on Wednesday. Growing up in Beaverton, David Nguyen can’t recall ever installing a switch, measuring an electrical outlet’s voltage or even so much as splicing two wires together.

Now the 2010 Beaverton High School graduate is an electrician’s mate on a hulking, newly commissioned U.S. Navy vessel in Norfolk, Va.

“I didn’t have any electrical experience whatsoever,” he said in a phone interview from Norfolk last Friday. “The military provided it for me.”

Nguyen, whose official title is “Navy electrician’s mate 3rd class,” is among a 35-strong crew responsible for, keeping the USS Arlington’s lights on — among numerous other functionalities, of course. The Navy’s eighth amphibious transport dock ship in the San Antonio class, the USS Arlington was commissioned with full military fanfare before a crowd of more than 5,000 people on Saturday.

The ship was named for Arlington County, Va., to honor the first responders and 184 victims who died when American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell joined several state dignitaries at the ceremony, including Joyce Rumsfeld, sponsor of the ship and wife of former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

New horizons

Playing a role in maintaining a brand-new Navy ship at the largest naval base in the country — not to mention being part of its commissioning — is pretty heady stuff for a Beaverton native just a couple years out of high school.

“I was really excited to see it for the first time,” he said of the USS Arlington. “It’s brand new. I’m really excited to live on it, be on it and do my job on it.”

Nguyen was among the crew that brought the ship from its birthplace at Huntington-Ingalls Industries in Pascagoula, Miss. The ship’s keel was laid in spring 2008, and the ship was delivered to the Navy on Dec. 7.

The five-day journey through the Gulf of Mexico and up the East Coast was an eye opener for Nguyen, who enlisted in the Navy right after he graduated from Beaverton High, where he excelled on the cross country and track teams.

“The transition from living in barracks to being on the ship, that’s the hard part,” he said. “On the ship, there’s less space and a lot of people living with you. You’re expected to know more, and do your job more and better. You can’t be late for work when you’re on the ship.”

Naturally wired

Nguyen joined the Navy with the blessing of his parents, Berlinda Tran and Thanh Nguyen. Driven by a long-term goal of being an engineer, he chose to pursue the Navy’s electrician program. After boot camp at the Navy’s Recruit Training Command Center in Great Lakes, Ill., Nguyen delved into six months of schooling to become an electrician’s mate.

“Nothing else inspired me,” he said of his chosen field. “I spent six months straight in school. In Norfolk, I was hands-on, working on the ship. That’s how I learned — learning from my mistakes. It was like, ‘If that doesn’t work, try this.’”

The method did the trick.

“It did come naturally to me,” he said. “I would just learn things off the bat. I was eager to learn. As soon as I would learn the basics, I would know what goes together with what. The skills just became second nature. Now I know what’s wrong just by looking at it.”

A recent incident on the Arlington in the wee hours of the morning reminded him that even newly commissioned ships aren’t immune to electrical malfeasance.

“It was 3 a.m. We were all sound asleep, and we heard the (communications alarm) go off,” he recalled. “Half the ship’s lights were flickering on and off.”

A call went out for electricians’ mates to go to their designated areas to address the problem.

“We troubleshooted first, to figure out how to fix it before we lose all the lights on the ship and become dead in the water,” Nguyen said. “We were able to fix it right away, but it was nerve-racking.”

The day before the commissioning ceremony, Nguyen was able to relax more than he had in some time.

“I worked out and went to eat with some friends and get my dress blues ready,” he said.

Not long after he committed to the Navy, Nguyen said he regretted not going to college first. Now that he’s acclimating to his environment and duties, however, he likes the idea of sticking it out and using the G.I. Bill to his advantage.

“After I get out, the Navy will pay for my tuition — a full ride,” he said, based on a 20-year commitment. “Right now I’m tempted to stay in the Navy. I like meeting new people, seeing the world and doing my job.

“It’s like a big melting pot,” he added. “I like it a lot.”

Track training keeps Nguyen moving forward

A former member of the Beaverton High varsity cross country and track and field teams, David Nguyen's idea of “working out” is impressive, even by military training standards.

For the past six months, he's been preparing for his Navy physical readiness test, which includes a 1.5-mile run and plenty of push-ups and sit-ups.

“Ever since I've been on the ship, I've come in first place on the mile and a half,” he said. “I don't want that to stop.”

That determination would likely please Jim Crawford, Nguyen's cross country and track coach at Beaverton High from his sophomore through senior years. The 12-year veteran coach remembers how the freshman worked his way up from less-than-illustrious beginnings on the cross-country team.

“He couldn't run 100 meters without stopping,” Crawford recalled. “I couldn't send him out on lunch. He'd walk and run, walk and run. His did his first race in 27 minutes. But the kid just stayed with it. The whole time he had a great attitude and worked very hard.”

By senior year, his 100 meter time was down to 17 minutes, 30 seconds.

“It was just tremendous,” he said. “He kept improving, and when he saw that improvement — that success breeds success — he did very well.”

Crawford said he isn't surprised to hear Nguyen made quick progress in his role as Navy electrician's mate.

“He was just a fun guy who worked very hard. He started to believe in himself, and it carries over,” he said. “You realize, 'Hey, I can do something.' By putting your nose to the grindstone, it carries over into your life. I'm really proud of him.”

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