Clark returns to Iowa roots after 20 years in the Navy

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Andrew Clark, pictured with wife Carla, recently retired from the Navy after 20 years of service. The Central graduate is once again making his home in Elkader.

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

 

Andrew Clark graduated from Central in 1999 with a plan to attend college for teaching agriculture. Growing up on the family farm, the career choice seemed to make sense. 

 

It was a life Clark admitted he didn’t appreciate as much as he should have at the time. But young and fresh off graduation, it’s about exploring and blazing your own path. It’s what Clark looked to do when he entered Hawkeye Community College. 

 

But life has a funny way of placing forks in the road—putting you on a more familiar path and, ultimately, bringing you home again. 

 

It was toward the end of his college journey, when Clark was almost done with his degree, that he saw a Navy recruiter on campus. “Something unexplainable” made him walk over to the booth. 

 

Perhaps it was the memory of his grandfather, a World War II veteran who served in the Marines. Though his grandfather never talked about his time in the war, knowing he was there left an indelible mark on young Clark.

 

Maybe it was the fact the Navy offered a quicker path to travel the world, experiencing more than small town life. Or maybe it was a spur-of-the-moment decision with no rational explanation. Whatever the reason, the decision altered Clark’s life. 

 

After meeting the recruiter, Clark left school and went home to tell his parents and future wife Carla. His parents weren’t surprised and supported the decision. Carla was taken aback at first, but was supportive all the same.  

 

In June 2001, Clark shipped out to Naval Station Great Lakes in Chicago for eight weeks of training. He was 20 years old and on his way to becoming a member of a Navy construction battalion better known as the Seabees, which form the Naval Construction Force (NCF). 

 

Boot camp, was easier than Clark thought it would be, with the only challenge being lack of communication with the outside world. Limited phone calls made mail drop the highlight. 

 

Clark passed without incident and was sent to Port Hueneme, Calif., for three months of A School, where sailors receive technical training in their selected field. For Clark, that was as a mechanic. 

 

It was during A School that Sept. 11 happened, and a wave of patriotism swept over the class. Clark and the other sailors, rather than being overwhelmed with anxiety, were “kind of excited” about where they would be sent. They were committed to the cause for which they signed up and hopeful they would get to go. According to Clark, that is just the “nature of the Seabees.”  

 

But he didn’t get sent right away. Instead, having graduated top of his class, Clark, now at the rank of E-3, had options. He chose to stay in California over the east coast, since he was already there and it was a main hub for the Seabees. 

 

During his time in California, Clark worked as a shop mechanic, repairing Humvees, dozers, rollers and scrappers. If it was light- or heavy-duty construction equipment, chances are he fixed it. 

 

In 2002, Clark was sent on his first deployment to Naval Station Rota in Spain, where he maintained a fleet of equipment. Then, what he was so hopeful for in 2001 finally happened in 2004, when he was deployed to Tikrit, Iraq, as a member of a Seabee Engineer Reconnaissance Team (SERT) trained for conveys, house breaching and combat situations. 

 

While a member of SERT, Clark’s main duty was far removed from mechanic work. Instead of wielding a wrench, he manned the .50 caliber machine gun turret mounted on a Humvee. Over the next six months, convoys Clark was attached to encountered a few low profile fire fights, and though he was ready for the occasion, he never had to engage. Luckily, there was never an IED incident. 

 

The highlight of Clark’s time in the Navy were the years he spent in Italy from 2008 to 2011, when he was based on Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily. This was also the first time his wife, Carla, made the trip overseas. By this time, Clark was an E-5 in rank and in charge of a crane crew and airplane lifts, sometimes transferring missiles from ship to ship. It was a return to the mechanical side of the Navy. 

 

In Italy, the couple visited 28 countries, highlighted by Egypt, Norway, Brussels and Rome. They visited the foxholes where the Battle of the Bulge took place. Also, in Italy, the first of the couple’s five children, Corbyn, was born.

 

After Italy, it was a return to the states in Florida, where Clark served as part of a Coastal Riverine Squadron, a small boat command that trained to escort ships and submarines into ports that don’t have security. As part of this squadron, Clark, now an E-6, was in charge of maintaining the fleet of equipment, mainly the trucks and tractors that hauled the rigid inflatable boats. 

 

But this time was spent not just as a mechanic, but also a life coach to some of the younger sailors. Life tips included to see as much as you can, even if you’re deployed in the states. Mainly, Clark stressed to do something to experience life—and never rush into anything. 

 

Before long, though, it was back to California. Clark, now an E-7, took a position that brought everything full circle, when he became an instructor at A School, teaching the diesel and chassis phases, as well as basic life skills like laundry, cleaning a room and financial competency. 

 

In the end, said Clark, “I liked teaching better than I thought I would.”

 

The final stop in Clark’s Navy career began in 2018, at Cheatham Annex near Williamsburg, Va., as a member of an amphibious construction battalion. It’s also where Clark ran the expeditionary fueling team, a new concept for the Navy at that time. They were basically mobile gas stations that could be erected quickly in combat zones. 

 

Clark was instrumental in bringing this to realization, and he and his team of about 30 spent a year getting the operation exercise ready. 

 

When the first exercise took place at Naval Air Facility Adak in Alaska, Clark was nervous, hoping he and his crew “didn’t screw anything up.” The exercise went well, as did the next one in the Philippines. Though he was in charge of it, Clark thanked the people under his command for making it possible. 

 

After 20 years, Clark finally decided to retire, making it official Aug. 31 of this year. 

 

And a productive 20 years it was. Along with the deployments, traveling and teaching, Clark received numerous awards, including the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Seabee Combat Warfare Specialist designation, Expeditionary Warfare Specialist designation and Master Training Specialist designation. 

 

Clark spent his career doing—something he advises young recruits to do as well.  

 

The decision to finally retire was about settling down, and no longer uprooting a family that now consisted of five children ranging from 3 to 12 years old. 

 

As Clark put it, “It was time to head home.” 

 

Home brought the Clarks back to Elkader, where family is, specifically grandparents. During this time, Clark reflected on the connection he had with his grandfather and the desire for his kids to make that same connection with their grandparents. The family bought his parents’ house, a place to create new roots that are firmly attached to roots already planted there. 

 

It also revealed to Clark that, while the world is big and he’s seen more of it than most, he’s still a small town kid at heart. While Italy was memorable, it’s good to be home and it’s good to be settled.  

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