Determined to succeed: Andre Kirkwood reflects on 30-year Navy career
VIRGINA BEACH, Va. -- As a student in Worthington's School District 518, Andre Kirkwood distinguished himself on the Trojan athletic fields, playing football and running track. In retrospect, he wishes he'd applied more effort to academics.
That was more than 30 years ago. After he graduated from Worthington High School in 1975, Kirkwood elected not to pursue college, instead enlisting in the U.S. Navy.
"My brother, Michael, had joined the Navy after he graduated from Worthington Junior College," explained Kirkwood. "I knew I wanted to do something and felt the Navy was really the best thing for me."
Kirkwood entered the Navy determined to excel and make the most out of his experience. Consequently, he distinguished himself throughout his military career, recently retiring. He not only achieved the highest rank available to enlisted personnel -- Master Chief -- but was accepted into an officer program, becoming a Warrant Officer Four. He earned a bachelor's degree with specialization in management and a master's degree in public administration.
"I realized once I got into the service that I had to give more. I couldn't just be getting by in order to be successful. So I'd take on extra jobs that other people didn't want to do. That's how I challenged myself throughout my career."
Andre, the son of Joseph and Hannah Kirkwood, was born in Kansas City, Kan., lived in Kansas City, Mo., and moved with his family to Worthington at age 9. His parents were employed at the then-Armour packing plant, and he had two siblings, Michael and Pam.
"It was a great place to live, great place to go to school, although I didn't take advantage of studying as much as I could," he reflected about his years in Worthington. "I really enjoyed my friends there. .... Looking back at my classmates, I had some really smart folks in my class, and that's what I take away from Worthington -- a bunch of different things from a lot of friends that I admired, and I wanted to emulate them. I wanted to create myself and do the right things."
After basic training in San Diego, Andre was assigned to an aircraft squadron in Hawaii, where he worked on the flight line while waiting to attend school for aircraft hydraulic systems. But he never did get that training, instead taking the examination to become an aviation boatswain mate and continuing to work on the flight line.
"That's where I wanted to be. I was a lot happier there, because everybody was 18, 19 years old. But in the course of doing that, I surpassed all my friends in advancement, and then it got kind of lonely. I left them all behind."
Andre achieved his goal of making Master Chief in 1992 and knew he still wanted to aim higher, so he applied for the officer program.
"That was one of my goals -- I'm gonna do 30 years with the Navy and make Master Chief, and I worked hard to do that," he said. "My goal was to get there as soon as I possibly can, and after I got there, what was I supposed to do? If I knew I was going to do 30 years, that would be another 12 years as Master Chief, doing the same things. So, when I made it, I changed my goals. I knew there were other opportunities out there, something else to work toward. I still wanted more for myself."
In his Navy career, Andre advanced from working on the flight line to running and being responsible for the entire flight line operation. He earned three Navy Achievement Medals and five Navy Commendation Medals along with other honors. His assignments included duty on several aircraft carriers and supervising an airfield.
"I'd take on different jobs for different things as far as advancements," he related. "My best job was when I was the officer in charge of Fentress Airfield (Chesapeake, Va.). Fentress is basically an auxiliary landing field, a self-sustaining base where the aircrafts come and do training for carrier qualifications before they go out to the ships. At the end of the runway, there's a mockup flight deck painted on the runway, so the pilots come in around and fly and land, as if they're flying onto a ship. So I was responsible for all the crash and firefighting stuff out there. So basically, I'm kind of like a fireman-type guy, anything that has to do with emergencies. That was probably my best job because I was in charge of the whole facility.
"But my favorite job was on board the (USS) Eisenhower," he added. "At that time, I was an E8 (Aviation Boatswain Mate Senior Chief), and I was the flight deck leading petty officer, responsible for the safe issue of aircraft on and off the flight deck. It's one of the top jobs an enlisted person can have. There are 12 carriers, so there are only 12 of those jobs, and I like that. With that job under my belt, I made Master Chief."
Several assignments have put Andre at the front lines of major military events.
"When I was on the (USS) America, I was onboard the ship in '86 when we bombed Quadhafi in Libya," Andre recalled. "I was a leading petty officer for a hangar bay, in charge of getting planes up to the flight deck when launched. And then in the Gulf War, I was on the Eisenhower, and we were on deployment at that time, in Naples on liberty on our way back to the United States. When something like that happens, they get the word out to get back to the ship, so they got us all back to the ship. We took off and were the first ones to arrive at the Suez Canal. Then, on 9-11, I was aboard the Enterprise, which was on deployment. We were just finishing up a fueling evolution, and we were supposed to go down to South Africa and then up to South America for another port visit. But as soon as we got done with that fueling evolution, I had to go inspect the tank tops, making sure they put the caps back on the tanks, so I was down in the berthing doing that and watching 9-11 as the airplanes flew into the World Trade Centers. Then next thing I know, the ship had stopped -- you know when you're turning around -- and we were the first ones there on station.
"That's one thing about the Navy -- you can pinpoint where you were and what ship you were on when something major happens."
Being away from family is one of the toughest parts of Navy life, according to Andre. But his wife, Debbie, was also in the Navy, retiring after 20 years, and so she was familiar with the requirements of military life. The Kirkwoods have two children: son Avery is in the Air Force, married with one son, Avery Jr.; daughter Audrey is currently a student.
"When I was on the America, we had three six-month deployments, and they're really tough," Andre said. "And at that time, you'd only get mail about every two weeks, so you were always two weeks behind with what was going on at home. Now they have e-mail, which makes it easier."
When duty brought him ashore, many of Andre's assignments were in the Virginia coastal area, which he continues to call home in retirement, living in Virginia Beach. After 30 years, Andre felt prepared to leave the Navy, although change never comes easily.
"My driving force for being in the Navy 30 years, other than just serving my country, was that I also looked at it as an investment as well. I wanted to maximize my life experiences, take advantage of all the opportunities and education and maximize my retirement. ... But it's kind of nerve-wracking to do something different after all these years, at the end of it, not knowing what you're going to do. "
To prepare for life after the military, Andre attended school to become a Cisco-certified computer systems professional, looking toward a second career dealing with technology. But another opportunity came his way that he couldn't pass by. He was hired as a military analyst for the Joint Training System Support Team for Cubic Application Inc., which provides training and facilitation support services as related to the implementation of joint policy, plans and doctrine.
Andre's parents also live not far away in Virginia.
"Mom and dad came to visit me before I went out on deployment on the America in 1983. They visited some friends who were working out here, and they convinced them to come here and work. So, when I got back from my deployment, they had moved here. My mom is retired -- she plays bridge every chance she gets -- but Dad still works at Smithfield Foods. Every time he talks about retiring, they come up with a different project for him to work on."
Andre's wife, Debbie, is a staff psychologist at Indian Creek Correctional Center and is currently finishing up her doctorate through Capella University in Minneapolis. Brother Michael put 24 years in the Navy and now lives in Nevada. Sister Pam is married and lives in the Twin Cities area.
Andre expressed interest in visiting Worthington some time in the near future, perhaps coming to Minnesota for King Turkey Day in September.
"Thirty years go by pretty fast," he said. "You're surprised by how much time has passed."