Helping Shipyard Prep for USS Virginia

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Exeter's Steven Shea Following Family Tradition

By Deborah McDermott

Seacoast Sunday, August 15, 2010

[The following article is courtesy of the Seacoast Sunday and Seacoast Online.]
US Navy Machinest Mate 2nd Class Steven Shea

Editor's note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of Sunday stories about the arrival of the USS Virginia, the first in the Virginia class of U.S. Navy submarines, at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard next month. This is a profile of one submariner who lives in the Seacoast.

KITTERY, Maine -- U.S. Navy Machinist Mate Second Class Steven Shea doesn't have much of a commute these days as he prepares for the arrival of his submarine, the USS Virginia, at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard next month. He just heads down the road a bit to Exeter, where he lives with his wife of one year who is pregnant with their child. And he'll be able to be that close to home throughout the 14-month stay of the Virginia, the first in the Virginia class of submarines ever built and the first to come to the shipyard for overhaul.

It's also the first time he's ever actually lived in Exeter, although he's had a house there for a while. He and his wife, whose maiden name is Lauren Minnon, are born and bred Granite Staters, he was raised in Raymond, she in Fremont, and Lauren's family is from Exeter.

The USS Virginia is homeported in Groton, Conn., and Shea spent many a weekend on the road to Exeter since being assigned to the Virginia in May 2008.

"It's great to be so close to home," he said. "Now that I'm up here, I'm actually able to live with my wife."

Shea, 24, is one of a 14-member team from the USS Virginia working with shipyard workers in advance of the arrival of the sub. And there's reason for that. He is an auxiliary machinist mate, "which means we own 90 percent of the ship. We call ourselves the A Gang."

Shea has to be knowledgeable about all the mechanical parts of the sub, including the diesel engine, the diesel generator, the sanitation system, the hydraulics, the drinking water, the emergency power and the oxygen. "If we're at sea, the day-to-day stuff comes under us, and you have to be thoroughly proficient in all the systems," ho said.

Shea singled out the oxygen equipment for special mention. "I actually make oxygen on the ship when it's below," he said.

An integrated low-pressure electrolyzer, "which looks like a giant filing cabinet" takes in water and uses electric current to separate molecules in the water to make oxygen. The oxygen is then distributed through the ventilation system. Shea said after a while, though, the oxygen can get pretty stale. He said one time the Virginia stayed submerged for 67 days before it could come to the surface and the ship could be ventilated.

"It was pretty ripe," he said. "You could smell it. Submarines have their own distinct smell anyway."

He has nothing but praise for the shipyard workers, who he said are well prepared for the arrival of the Virginia.

"When the boat gets here, it will be a really smooth process," he said. "They're prepared and very knowledgeable."

Shea couldn't be happier being on the Virginia. For him, it's a family affair. His grandfather was a Navy submariner, he said. "When I was young, he and I would build submarine models, and he brought me to Connecticut to show me the subs," he said. "When I thought about joining the military, the Navy was the first and only branch of service I considered."

Although his grandfather died in May 2009, on Memorial Day, he was alive to pin Shea's submarine warfare pin on his grandson. "He had a big influence on me," he said.

Still, as much as he loves the sea he said it's particularly important to be close to home now. Although his wife is pregnant again, she miscarried while he was out at sea and on a classified mission that did not allow any communications with the outside world. "There's periods where we can't be in touch," he said. "If it's an emergency, the Red Cross can send a message, and finally we got an e-mail. The captain brought me into his quarters to tell me."

He was granted an emergency leave to be with her but had to return to the ship — so for him to now be just a few minutes down the road from home has meant a lot to both of them, he said.

He said he's going to enjoy showing his fellow crew mates the area. They're already asking about where to go, particularly children-friendly places like the White Mountains where they can take their families. Most of the crew will keep their families in Groton because of school, but they'll be up some weekends.

"I've told them Connecticut's not as severe as New Hampshire in terms of the weather," he said. "When it snows a couple of inches in Connecticut, it will be a couple of feet in New Hampshire."

Still, he said, he's proud to call the Granite State home.

"I love New Hampshire," he said. "I could go anywhere in the world and I'll always come back to New Hampshire."

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