USS Cole patrols Mediterranean with Unity man on deck
Jonathan Okonak was an accomplished swimmer at Greater Latrobe High School and then at St. Vincent College, so maybe it was appropriate that he joined the branch of the armed forces that patrols the waters around the world in defense of the nation.
Navy Lt. j.g. Okonak, 25, just finished his first deployment, a nine-month tour aboard the USS Cole as it patrolled the eastern Mediterranean Sea in support of the Sixth Fleet.
Okonak, the son of William and Margery Okonak of Unity Township, said he had an interest in joining the military since graduating from St. Vincent. Now he serves as an assistant supply officer for about 50 of the 300 sailors aboard the Cole, a ballistic missile defense destroyer.
“It's been a great experience. It's been a great opportunity to grow. We're all a team here,” Okonak said.
He enjoys what he says is a challenging job that gives him an opportunity to be in a leadership role.
“It's taking care of your people. You never know what's going to be coming at you,” Okonak said.
The Cole stopped in ports in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Israel and Turkey, he said.
“We were all over the map,” said Okonak, who enjoyed the stop in Greece the most.
The Cole was the center of international attention in October 2000 when terrorists attacked it with an explosives-laden boat while the destroyer was refueling in Aden Harbor, Yemen, resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors. Among those killed in the terrorist attack was Chief Petty Officer Richard D. Costelow, a Philadelphia-area native who was the son of George R. and Dorothy Costelow of New Florence.
Okonak's first deployment has been longer than a typical one, said Master Command Chief Larry Dean, a 44-year-old New Castle native who serves as the Cole's senior enlisted man. The sailors knew when they left on April 23 that the deployment would last about nine months.
“It's a lot easier to mitigate, to separate and to be separated over the holidays, if you know how long you will be deployed,” Dean said.
During the long deployment, it was important to “keep your game face on,” Okonak said.
The lieutenant drew praise for his work from Dean, who has seen his share of officers and had his share of deployments during 27 years in the Navy.
“It's quite a job for him to have. His accomplishments and achievements are more indicative of a much more senior officer. His career is notable,” Dean said. “He is fine young man and naval officer who represents himself, the Navy and the great city of Latrobe, Pa., with great pride. There is not a sailor on the Cole who doesn't know where he's from.
“Being a resident of Western Pennsylvania myself and also very proud of my roots, I have yet to meet a sailor who is more proud of where they are from,” Dean added.
Okonak joined the Navy in 2010 after graduating from St. Vincent, where he studied finance. Rather than taking his degree and moving into the world of business, he opted to serve his country and join the Naval Office Candidate School at Newport, R.I.
“I wasn't too excited about sitting in a cubicle,” he said.
At this point, Okonak is considering making the Navy his career.
“It's been great for me, and I look forward to the future,” Okonak said.
Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.