By Travis Weger
I had the opportunity to sit down with my cubicle-mate, Lt. Cristina Fernandez-O’Toole, a former Military Sealift Command (MSC) second mate and current Strategic Sealift Officer (SSO) with more than seven years of sea-time. Sitting next to Cristina the past few months, you would have no idea that she had so much salt under her nails.
A very hard-working and a driven officer, Fernandez-O’Toole is a huge asset to MSC Europe and Africa and Commander, Task Force 63. Here are the highlights from our meeting:
What is a Strategic Sealift Officer and what are the particulars of your position?
We are merchant mariners, both deck and engineering officers, that support the Navy in multiple roles supporting strategic sealift in times of national emergency. The SSO program provides officers for emergency crewing and shore-side support of Military Sealift Command's Surge Sealift Fleet and the Ready Reserve Force in times war.
I attended King’s Point, where upon graduation, midshipmen are typically commissioned as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy Reserve. We automatically become SSO’s with an eight-year commitment to the Navy. I went to sail with MSC after graduating, but some of my classmates went active duty in the Navy or other branches of the military. In short, SSOs are a community of licensed mariner’s.
I am currently on year-long Active Duty for Training orders with the Navy Reserve. I am the SSO Operations Officer, and am currently dual hatted supporting as Operational Support Officer, for MSCEURAF. In the SSO Program, we have five area Operations Officers which are in San Diego, Norfolk, Bahrain, Singapore and here in Naples, Italy.
My role is to act as a liaison officer between the SSO program office, which is our virtual Navy Operational Support Center, and the command. My official function here is to coordinate yearly active duty for training orders for reserve SSOs, support and mentor reservists who are supporting the command, and represent the SSO community in 6th Fleet and the larger Navy.
How long have you been an MSC teammate?
I started with MSC at 19 years old while sailing as a deck cadet. The first MSC ship I was attached to was the USNS Carl Brashear (T-AKE 7) operating in 7th Fleet. I sought a job with MSC, and was hired before graduation. I sailed as a third mate and then promoted to permanent second mate. I sailed with MSC for a little over three years and then switched gears to sail commercially with the Masters Mates and Pilots union.
As a SSO, I do my reserve time in support of MSC and have been a reservist for nine years.
What did you do before becoming an MSC teammate?
I went to King’s Point right out of high school at 17 years old. I used to babysit a little bit, and led the Model United Nations club in high school, but MSC was my first real job.
What do you attribute your success at MSC to?
I have seen a lot of different aspects of the MSC mission. Sailing as a deck officer, you see underway replenishments first-hand, you understand manning challenges and you understand the material condition of the ships. I think my sailing background with MSC, has given me a depth of knowledge in my reserve capacity.
Why have you chosen MSC as your place of work?
Looking back, I think MSC was much more dynamic than sailing commercially. If I would have known what my commercial experience was going to be, I would have stayed with MSC my entire time at sea. I saw so much more of the world with MSC.
I have stayed as an SSO beyond my commitment because I want to continue to serve and support, as I believe in MSC’s mission.
Do you have any professional advice for your MSC teammates?
When you are a junior officer, get as much experience as possible in different Area commands. As you get some experience under your belt, get in with a command that you feel comfortable with and grow within that command. As you become a senior officer, you can then bring that depth of experience within the SSO community to your leadership. See the wide range of what is out there, choose something that will allow you to grow, and then go from there.