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Departing top Admiral in region reflects on time in Hampton Roads

Posted at 1:11 PM, Nov 21, 2014
and last updated 2014-11-21 18:35:52-05

Norfolk, Va. (WTKR) - The outgoing commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command is reflecting on his time in Hampton Roads.

Admiral Bill Gortney is heading west to become commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Gortney took command of U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk on September 14, 2012.

As of Friday, Vice Admiral Nora W. Tyson has temporarily assumed responsibility as acting commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command.

Gortney's permanent relief will be Vice Admiral Phil Davidson who is currently commander of U.S. Sixth Fleet in Naples, Italy.

Davidson has been confirmed by the Senate for promotion to Admiral and for his new assignment in Norfolk as Gortney's relief.

However, his relief in Italy, Rear Admiral James G. Foggo III, is still pending confirmation.

As a result, the planned Fleet Forces Change of Command Ceremony for Monday has been cancelled.

In a sit-down interview with NewsChannel 3's Todd Corillo Wednesday, Admiral Gortney reflected on his time in Hampton Roads, his accomplishments and challenges during his time here and what he'll miss the most about the region.

Optimized Fleet Response Plan

The USS George HW Bush returned to Hampton Roads on Saturday following a nine-month deployment.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt is scheduled to deploy for nine months or more in 2015.

Admiral Gortney calls the length of those deployments "unsustainable."

During his time as head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, Admiral Gortney rolled out a new policy to overhaul fleet deployment cycle.

"If you’re maintenance intensive, like ships, it’s a 3 year cycles. All of our carriers, our submarines, our cruisers and destroyers are a three-year cycle," he said.

Starting in 2016, Carrier Strike Groups will deploy for seven months once every three years, which translates to about 70% of the time spent at home.

Admiral Gortney says the plan realigns maintenance schedules and will offer sailors more time with family.

"In the good old days, it was 6 months deployments and in those good old days it was a 6 month deployment with 3 months of work ups and it was over a 24 month cycle. So we are actually going to be given more time at home over a 3 year cycle."

He cautions that if a budget deal isn't reached and further cuts come to the Navy, the plan could be hampered before it ever begins.

Even so, he's optimistic that won't happen and says the plan should boost morale for both sailors and their families.

"We recruit the sailor, we retain a family. If we are going to maintain a forward deployed Navy, we have got to retain the right people."

Difficult Losses 

Admiral Gortney became visibly upset when talking about the most difficult days of his command of U.S. Fleet Forces, ones where he had to tell families that their sailors would not be coming home.

"I've lost 58 sailors over 25-26 months. Eight of them were on duty, 18 of them were off and there were 32 that were suicides. Every single one of them was a tragedy."

"Injury and death are a necessary and evil part of combat. They should never be a part of preparing for combat and how we are live our lives either at work or going to and from work or in our home," he added.

One of those deaths happened at Naval Station Norfolk on March 24, 2014 when MA2 Mark Mayo was shot and killed by an intruder on the USS Mahan.

A NewsChannel 3 investigation in November showed his mother, Sharon Blair, is still waiting for answers from the Navy about what happened.

Sailor's mom wants to know why son's killer wasn't stopped 

"What I say to her is what I say to all the mothers and fathers, wives and husbands that have lost their husbands: We are going to why and we are going to get them the answer and we are going to try and do everything in our power to prevent re-occurrence," Admiral Gortney said.

The investigation into Mayo's death is in its final stages, in the hands of top Navy officials.

"We are close to being able to release that investigation into exactly what happened to help fill in some of that void."

Even when that happens, Admiral Gortney admits it will not bring total closure.

"I've never – in all the time I've been doing this – I've never met a mother or a father, wife or a husband or a guardian that is satisfied with any of those answers – because we can never bring their loved one back."

Leaving Hampton Roads 

"I’m most proud of turning over what I perceive to be a better command than the one I took. Everyone of our commanders should strive to do that. John Harvey turned over a great command to me," Admiral Gortney said.

He's headed to Colorado, trading the ocean for the mountains.

"Really looking forward to the opportunities in Colorado Springs but there’s not much salt water," he said with a chuckle.

As for what he'll miss the most about a region that is home to the world's largest naval base:

"I’m a fleet sailor. So I’m going to miss sailors being at the waterfront. Every morning I come to work I drive the piers every single morning.I’m going to miss that and watching sailors coming every to go man those beautiful ships."

Admiral Gortney will take command of U.S. Northern Command and NORAD in early December.