By MC2 Cameron Edy
It was a strange twist of fate that found two long-lost cousins reuniting halfway across the world.
Yeoman 2nd Class Danny Smith and Cmdr. Hasan Abdul-Mutakallim were serving in Naples, Italy when Raymond Smith, Danny Smith’s father and Abdul-Mutakallim’s uncle, had passed following a stroke and hospice care. The news, delivered by Senior Chief Culinary Specialist Carl Smith, Danny Smith’s brother, sent both reeling. But then came a surprise – Smith and Abdul-Mutakallim had worked less than 100 feet away from each other at U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/Sixth Fleet (NAVEUR-NAVAF-SIXTHFLT), for the last two years.
At two years old Smith’s father left the family, only occasionally calling his son. They reconnected again in Smith’s senior year of high school, and grew closer, until Smith joined the Navy.
Smith became a submariner, and instantly fit into the community – he was never treated differently for his age or race, and was soon serving on a Hawaii-based submarine far from his hometown of Atlanta, before moving overseas to Naples, Italy. Reflecting on the dwindling contact, Smith realized – while he forgave his father for leaving, some part of him was still angry.
“I caught myself punishing him,” Smith sighed. “I never would have thought, in a million years, that he would pass while I was making emotionally rash decisions. That day sucked.”
Shortly after returning from an emergency leave visit following his father’s stroke, Smith received a text from his brother. His father was gone.
He was at home when a friend texted him: his buddy’s commander, Abdul-Mutakallim, thought they were cousins, and wanted him to call. Smith reached out, and the two immediately clicked – Smith calls himself a family man, something he partially attributes to his relationship with his father.
“When we started talking, I wanted to know everything,” Smith said. “I wanted to meet my auntie, and my father’s side of the family. I wanted to meet my cousins, I wanted to meet his kids, because I didn’t have that opportunity growing up. I’ve only known my mom’s side – I wanted it all. I wanted to fill that void. I definitely fell into that [friendship with Abdul-Mutakallim], but more than that, I wanted it.”
Abdul-Mutakallim’s life was different – son of Capt. Davis, one of Western Michigan University’s first African American Reserve Officers’ Training Corps Army graduates, his father was a constant presence in his life. Attending college at that same university, Abdull-Mutakallim would work four jobs to make ends meet. Then came a break – while driving a friend to a recruiting office for her fourth attempt at an Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery ASVAB test, he met Chief Petty Officer Xavier Page. Page sold him on being a nuclear technician, and even hinted that a scholarship and officer position would be possible if he scored high on the nuclear test and graduated in the top 10% of his class.
So he did, and while his dreams of becoming a nuclear submarine officer were crushed by a surprisingly denied package, he switched gears and became a P-8 Poseidon pilot – until viral vertigo landed him in a desk as an information professional at NAVEUR-NAVAF-SIXTHFLT.
Abdul-Mutakallim’s grandfather broke the news about “Uncle Ray,” and he immediately called Smith’s brother to check in, learning about Smith.
“It’s funny, because he’s so much younger than the rest of us,” Abdul-Mutakallim laughed. “We’re working on getting closer and getting to know each other better. Had we known we were family we could have done a lot more… I have a lot of brothers and sisters, but I’ve never had family really close to me.”
As the relationship grew, the two became more entwined. They met each other’s wives at Mrs. Smith’s birthday party, and in March, Smith will meet Abdul-Mutakallim’s first child. But it was the passing of Smith’s father that brought them so close. Abdul-Mutakallim would check on Smith regularly, making sure he was alright throughout the ordeal.
“It was like God took away this part, but he also introduced a whole new world of relationships and people I can meet now,” Smith said. “I can’t do it through my dad, or with him, but I have an extension of him now.”
Soon, personal support developed into professional mentorship. Before the cousin revelation, Smith was on the brink of separating. He “wouldn’t, couldn’t go back to a submarine.” While contemplating, he looked at different programs and saw that with hard work, commissioning was possible. Abdul-Mutakallim pushed him to not give up, to finish his degree, to take more classes before transferring, and kept him moving forward.
Abdul-Mutakallim is vehement about goal planning, telling everyone trying to join the officer community three things: “You have to have a plan… You have to understand what it is you’re going to contribute, and what you’re willing to give. There’s a bit of both – you have to be willing to give just to serve in a leadership role, and you have to understand what you want to get so you’ll put in the commitment to achieve that goal.”
Abdul-Mutakallim added on to his usual pitch when talking to Smith, asking what he wanted to do next – but he was careful. Before, he had pushed his life onto his brother, pushed him to do well in school, and pushed him to commission. Now, he waits for interest in the opportunity and explains why it was the right move for him, and how it could be the right move for Smith if he really wanted it.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” Smith said. “Not only is he [family] out here, but he’s also something I aspire to be, becoming commissioned and seeing that other side [of the Navy]… Seeing him be what I want to be, and also related to me, is rejuvenating.”
They both transfer within the year, and their time together is dwindling. Their latest meeting was at NAVEUR-NAVAF-SIXTHFLT’s Black History Month event. Abdul-Mutakallim, the keynote speaker, summarized the legacy of the Golden Thirteen – the first group of African American commissioned and warrant officers in the U.S. Navy. His cousin stood behind him, a smile plastered on his face and growing wider at the mention their Navy family.
“Look around at each other and look at the diversity that we have in the Navy now, that we have amongst ourselves now that we didn’t have in 1944.” boomed Abdul-Mutakallim. “The first words that were given to me by my [Recruit Division Commander] – he said ‘You are not white, you are not black, you are Navy blue!’ We are a Navy blue force… Have and keep father with each other. Have the courage to stand against what is wrong and hope for that future, because you are that future.”
The mentorship, and friendship, between the two will continue to grow and change as they depart the command and move forward in their careers, both will leave NAVEUR-NAVAF-SIXTHFLT remembering – before they were cousins, they were brothers dressed in Navy blue.
U.S. 6th Fleet, headquartered in Naples, Italy, conducts the full spectrum of joint and naval operations, often in concert with allied and interagency partners, in order to advance U.S. national interests and security and stability in Europe and Africa.