Navy provided career path
John Protz's eye for photography led him to the military, but it was his hard-working nature that allowed him to retire as a high-ranking naval officer after 24 years of service.
Protz, 42, grew up in the Van Voorhis area of Fallowfield Township.
As a teenager with an uncertain career path, he decided to let the U.S. Navy become his surrogate family.
"I went to the Mon Valley vo-tech school for television photography," Protz said. "I had a teacher named James Carroll. I told him I wanted to stay in photography. I didn't really have the money for school. He said, 'Why don't you join the military?"
The conversation changed Protz's life.
He retired March 1 as a lieutenant commander, a far cry from his beginning as sailor and aerial photographer who helped collect intelligence for the planning stages of military operations.
In the early 1990s, Protz supported missions in Somalia and Iraq after Operation Desert Storm aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.
"We were on the first carrier off the coast of Somalia. We did all reconnaissance imagery for all the ground forces for Somalia," Protz said.
Over the years, Protz spent about five years at sea aboard three aircraft carriers.
He said his first six-month tour off land was most difficult.
"The first time was very tough. There was a lot of letter writing; one every day. Now they have e-mail, so it's a little easier," Protz said.
Later in his career, he became a naval instructor and spent his downtime earning a master's degree in education.
"When I wasn't on a ship, I took night classes," he said. "I was thinking of becoming a teacher. Actually, I'm working for a company now working on submarine periscope imagery systems."
After nearly 12 years in the Navy, Protz became a commissioned officer. He was assigned to lead a combat support group involved in more than 20 missions.
From 1999 to 2002, Protz worked in Washington, D.C.
"I was in the Pentagon," he said. "I was a program manager for the Department of Defense. I worked in operations planning. I was part of an element that helped plan the war in Afghanistan."
During his last four years in the Navy, Protz served as assistant director of the submarine surveillance program and the department head of a naval submarine school in Groton, Conn.
Protz said that when he first enlisted, he didn't intend to stay in the military so long.
An avid outdoorsman, his thirst for adventure and appreciation of discipline allowed him to progress.
"After I got in, I realized that I like the structure of the organization," he said. "They gave you goals to work at and you could be successful, and I liked that. I valued that as an opportunity for someone who didn't go to college."
Protz said his involvement in the military has left him with many cherished memories, especially his first encounter with his wife of 22 years, Mika.
The two met while Protz was stationed in Japan.
The couple lives in Montville, Conn., and has two children; a daughter, Nikki, 19, and a son, Nathan, 21.
Protz's military career took him to California, Florida and Japan.
Through his travels, Protz gained a fortified love for his country and stronger appreciation for his Mon Valley roots.
"The people I've run across in the military, many of them embodied the same characteristic as people back home; very hardworking," he said. "The Valley embodied the hard worker.
"My brothers and relatives were all coal miners or construction workers. We worked hard and we played hard. I had a very good sense of responsibility given to me from my parents and role models."
Protz said he looks forward to visits to the Mon Valley to see relatives and friends.
"Hunting with my family is my No. 1 passion," he said. "I try to get back every year with them."
His mother, Donna Dobrinski, lives in Van Voorhis. His brothers, Jim and Anthony, live in Dunlevy and Marianna, respectively. His sister, Jodi Bruno, lives in Charleroi. Another brother, Joseph, lives in Florida.
The former sailor said he still occasionally becomes homesick.
"I just miss where I'm from," he said. "I had a really happy childhood. We always had plenty of things to do.
"I've got the best memories. I can't think of a better place to grow up. Hopefully, one day I'll make it back."