The barista and the captain

  • Thursday, August 15, 2013

Mount Pleasant’s Sy Rosenthal was on hand as Captain Stephen Koehler was named the captain of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. The two became friends when Rosenthal worked as a Starbucks barista and Koehler lived nearby during his training at the Naval Nuclear Power School in Goose Creek. PHOTO PROVIDED

My name is Sy Rosenthal and after retiring from a major engineering/construction firm in New Jersey in 1999, I moved to Mount Pleasant. With time on my hands and only being 60 years old, I started to look for some part-time employment to stay active. After several years I settled into a position as a barista at the Starbucks in the Belle Hall Shopping Center.

I was “Sy the Coffee Guy” and tried to dispense good cheer, laughter and a general good time to customers, as they purchased their daily “joe” and maybe a pound or two of coffee. It has been several years since I fully retired but I still see many of my former customers who all became my friends and to this day, we still shake hands or hug as long-lost friends usually do.

The captain

Captain Stephen Koehler is a native of San Diego, Calif., who graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a degree in physics and was commissioned through the Naval ROTC program at the university. He was designated a naval aviator in 1989 and received his flight training in the F-14 Tomcat in 1990.

As a “top gun” jet fighter pilot he assumed operational, administrative, training and maintenance assignments in operations Desert Storm, Deliberate Guard and Southern Watch aboard the supercarriers USS Nimitz and USS John F. Kennedy.

After graduating from the Naval War College with a Master’s Degree in National Security and Strategic Studies and after attending the Armed Forces Staff College he became an executive officer of various fighter squadrons including the Fighter Squadron aboard the supercarrier USS George Washington during Operation Iraqi Freedom. After logging more than 500 arrested landings and 3,600 hours in various Naval Aircraft, he was assigned in 2005 as an Assistant/Naval Aide to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy before being selected to undergo nuclear power training.

The barista and the captain

In 2006, I was “Sy the Coffee Guy” at the Belle Hall Starbucks when a series of men arrived at the store for morning coffee. They arrived in their brown leather jackets with the fancy emblems on the front of the jackets and I was looking at a group of Tom Cruises in the movie “Top Gun.” Apparently the apartment complex to the rear of the Belle Hall Shopping Center had a large contingent of navy personnel who were training at the Naval Nuclear Power School in Goose Creek; this includes enlisted men and officers who will be assigned to nuclear submarines and supercarriers.

I became friends with many of them and that included all these naval aviators who were destined to become executive officers on America’s Nimitz-class supercarriers that are the largest and most powerful warships in the world and serve this country as a powerful instrument protecting American interests and preserving peace with an awesome military presence. It is one thing to be a naval aviator and another thing to be second in command of a supercarrier, where your responsibilities dwarf your abilities as a jet fighter pilot.

Of all these aviators, Captain Stephen Koehler and I became fast friends, even if it was only over an occasional coffee in the morning and in the afternoon. I invited him over to my house for dinner and on one occasion, met his wife, children and dog, who came down from Virginia Beach to visit him in Mount Pleasant.

Eventually Captain Koehler graduated from the Nuclear Power School and became the Executive Officer of the USS Carl Vinson from 2007 to 2009. He then commanded the USS Bataan — the flagship of a marine expeditionary task force from 2010 to 2011 and then became the Chief of Staff to the Commander, Joint Task Force—Horn of Africa in Djibouti from 2012 to the beginning of 2013.

I left Starbucks sometime after Captain Koehler graduated from the Nuclear Power School, but he kept in touch with me at Christmas with a card and a summary of family activities and his military assignments during the year. I also received official navy announcements of his above assignments. This year, however, I received something special from the Navy. It was an invitation to a Change of Command Ceremony at the Naval Station Norfolk, Va. The change in command ceremony is not prescribed specifically by U.S. Navy Regulations but is an honored product of the rich heritage of naval tradition; it is very special ceremony and to be invited to such a ceremony is indeed a special honor.

The ceremony

On July 19, Marlene and I arrived at the Naval Station Norfolk around 9 a.m. for the 10 a.m. ceremony. My guest pass ushered me through the gates with a show of our IDs and my VIP parking pass permitted me to park right next to the pier where the ceremony would take place. An officer met us at the car with a golf cart and drove us down the pier, which was lined with dress white enlisted sailors — quite a sight.

When we arrived at the stairway to the ship, an officer in his dress whites came down the stairs and escorted Marlene up the stairs and took us to our reserved seats where the ceremony was going to take place.

The cavernous level right below the flight deck is an awesome space designed to stage all the aircraft prior to raising them to the flight deck and it is huge — it would not surprise me if we could fit the entire Yorktown on this level of the ship alone. We walked into this area and the first thing we saw were some 3,000 sailors and officers in their dress whites standing in an ordered and disciplined manner — truly a remarkable sight. We are seated among many of his former jet fighter pilot friends and surrounded by current and retired vice admirals, 10 of the 15 former captains of the ship and a host of other naval and military officers; if I am not mistaken, I was the only barista.

The ship and the rest of ceremony

The ceremony consisted of speeches by the Vice Admiral — Commander, Naval Air Forces, and the current and future captains of the ship.

Both captains are then read their respective orders with due respect to the observance of customs and traditions, each founded on need and each contributing to the stability, combat effectiveness and smooth transfer of authority.

Captain Stephen T. Koehler is now the captain of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower — “The Ike” - one of the most revered and longest deployed of the nuclear supercarriers, and my friend from my days at Starbucks is now the captain of this famous and awesome supercarrier. It was truly an awesome and emotional experience. After the ceremony they had a reception in a section at this same level on the ship and I finally had a chance to go over to my friend Stephen. He saw me, gave me a smile and yelled “Sy, I’m so glad you made it to the ceremony. You don’t know how many times I have told people how we met.”

When I think about all those attending this ceremony, I cannot think of any of them having such a unique relationship with him as a barista at a coffee shop. We hugged and I congratulated him on his new position and wished him well. My wife and I spoke to his wife, who remembered me from her visit to Mount Pleasant and I just had a ball talking to vice admirals and others. Not bad for a former barista.

I asked an officer if there were tours of the ship and the next thing I knew, Marlene and I were off on a personal tour that took us to the flight deck and eventually up to the top levels of the ship where the “big captain’s chair” is located. All in all a heck of a day and something that Marlene and I will always remember.

I have little doubt that I will be receiving future cards from the navy announcing additional promotions for Stephen. He is one very special person and I am proud to call him my friend. Any time he wants some coffee, all he has to do is ask.

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