“I know I have some big shoes to fill,” said new Marquette County Veterans Service Officer Don Wilken, left. Last week, out-going VSO Rich Haase presented Wilken with a VSO “paper brain,” a book that is labelled “The source of all knowledge worth knowing” to help smooth Wilken’s way into his new job. (Photo by Kathleen McGwin)
Don Wilken is new Veterans Service Officer
By Kathleen McGwin
Former Marquette County Veterans Service Officer (VSO) Rich Haase passed the reins to newly hired VSO Don Wilken last week as he began his first days on the job. Haase left the Marquette County position to take the VSO position in Columbia County where he lives. Haase helped screen, interview, and recommend the new officer.
Wilken sat down last week to talk about his Navy career and his new role.
“I hope I can continue the work that Rich has been doing here in Marquette County and I really look forward to working here,” he said.
The new VSO was interested in the position when it opened up because of the help he had received from Haase two years ago.
“It was the first time I found someone looking out for my best interests,” he said. “I left the office so impressed that I thought, someday, I’d like to do that job.”
That job is helping US veterans travel through the sometimes-complicated terrain of benefits and assistance they are afforded as former military who served their country. As a retired Master Chief Machinist Mate (MMCM) of the US Navy, Wilken is well qualified and dedicated to his new job.
The retired Chief was born on a Columbus, Wisconsin farm and enlisted in the Navy in 1984 when he was 22 years old. After high school, he’d worked for three years at the Fall River Foundry as lead man in pour off and melting.
“I wanted to continue my education so I visited the Navy recruiter,” Wilken said. “After taking the vocational tests, he advised me to apply for nuclear power school. He was a Navy Seal, so didn’t know anything about nuclear power submarines.”
The school was intense and Wilken at times didn’t know if he’d make it through or why he’d entered that field, but he kept having success after success. He moved from Great Lakes to Connecticut for nuclear prototype training school where a complete submarine hull is used to train sailors in real-life scenarios. The challenges continued, but “it turned out I was pretty good at it” and he went on to Charleston for a five year stint on a boomer submarine capable of carrying strategic nuclear missiles.
Boomer submarines have a different purpose than attack and cruise submarines. Crews go out for several months at a time. During his five years, Wilken said, he had one port of call. He was a nuclear qualified machinist mate and ran turbines, propulsion engines, and electrical cooling systems among other jobs. The ships company for a boomer is about 120 sailors. The submarines’ job is to stay hidden from view as part of the nation’s nuclear strategy. If they detect another submarine, Wilken said, they avoid it, always staying very quiet.
“If you want to scare a boomer sailor, crush a Pepsi can,” laughed Haase.
Wilken’s Navy career continued to blossom. He became Engineering Senior Watch Supervisor and then moved on to Charleston where he became an instructor in nuclear powered training and qualified for Engineering Officer of the Watch. He trained commissioned officers to become classroom instructors. As a Master Training Specialist, he counts this as one of his favourite times in the Navy.
Fast attack submarines, the hunter/killers of the fleet, were his next destination.
“I wanted more action,” he said. “It’s more fun hunting than being hunted.”
On the boomer subs there are two crews and they switch taking the submarine out, meaning they spend 50% of their duty at sea. Fast attack submarines have only one crew and while assigned to the Los Angeles Class USS Philadelphia SSN 690 for three years, Wilkens spent 260 days underwater each year.
“Submarine duty is a small community,” Wilkens said. “When you’re out you miss a lot of things and you run low on supplies. Once, all we had left was oatmeal and canned ham we called rainbow ham. You miss fresh eggs, milk.”
The crew work on 18-hour schedules with six hours on watch, six hours off and six hours sleep time.
“It’s hard to revert back to a 24 hour day when you get back in port,” he said. “You take every opportunity to sleep on board. It’s called defensive racking or for Rich (Haase) who is retired Air Force, it’s called a combat nap.”
The submarine sailor made E-8, Senior Chief Petty Officer and Engineering Department Enlisted Advisor. He moved assignments to the USS Memphis SSN 691 as the Senior Enlisted Officer, also known as the Bull Nuke. Haase said.
During all his time at sea, he was backed up by “a very supportive wife.” Wilken met Emma while she was in the Navy and asked her to marry him on their second date.
“She was very strong willed and I needed that,” he said. “Someone who can take care of the home while I was gone so much. I took her to the 21st Century movie theatre and they played a French movie with subtitles and in our seats we couldn’t read them. I asked her what she would do if she had a Navy husband who was gone again and again. She answered that she’d support him and I asked her to marry me. She said yes.”
The Wilkens have been married 27 years and have raised a son and daughter.
During his Navy career, Wilkens was awarded four Navy E ribbons. This ribbon denotes permanent duty on ships or in squadrons that won Battle Efficiency competitions. His last duty assignment was on the USS Miami SSN 755. He was promoted to E-9. According to the Naval Historical Center, E-7 to E-9 are considered Petty Officers, but are a separate community within the Navy. Advancement to Chief Petty Officer (E-7) or above requires a board review by existing Master Chief Petty Officers beyond the normal examination score and performance evaluation process. The annual list of Chief selectees is authorized by Congress, leading chiefs to sometimes state, "it took an act of Congress to put these anchors here, it will take an act of Congress to take them off."
After Wilkens retired from the Navy, he returned to Wisconsin in 2004 and set out to train as a plumber. Today he’s a licensed journeyman plumber.
“I missed working with my hands,” he said.
The couple first moved to Deforest but heard about a log cabin for sale near Oxford. He told his wife they’d go look at it, but don’t think they were going to buy it. After viewing the house, his wife, he said, grabbed the realtors arm and said, “Don’t worry, we’re buying it.”
They’ve lived on their 40 acres ever since and love it and the Marquette County and Oxford area. It was Wilkens drive to keep learning that brought him first into the Veterans Service Office in Montello where he asked Rich Haase about benefits available so he could go back to school and finish a bachelor’s degree in business management. That was two years ago and he plans on graduating in March of 2013. He sees the degree helping him at his new VSO job.
“This is a job worth keeping,” he said from behind the desk in the VSO office. “I never plan on leaving it and I’ll be attending training to earn accreditation with the Veterans Administration for entering claims. Like Rich has told me, every veteran is different and I’ll treat each one as an individual.”