Annetta resident Stephen Kehrt will be officially retiring from the U.S. Navy as a commander on Jan. 31 after 20 years of service.
Kehrt grew up in Murphy, Texas and graduated from Southwest Texas State University in 1994 with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in accounting. Kehrt joined the Navy and received his commission in March of 2000 after attending the Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida.
“I was in Atlanta and was working as an accountant at Georgia Power, and I just looked around one day and said, ‘I don’t want to spend the next 40 years in this cubicle, I have to do something else,’ so I found a way out and just joined the Navy,” Kehrt said. “I just didn’t feel like being an average person that may or may not move up in the chain, I wanted to break away from that and do something more interesting than a nine-to-five job.”
Kehrt and his wife, Amy, got married in 1999 in Houston right before his first deployment.
From there Kehrt began his 20 years of service completing several deployment operations and achievements along the way. From September 2000 to October 2001 his first command was aboard the USS Harry S. Truman out of Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia as the Safety Division Officer and deployed to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Southern Watch. In December of 2001, Kehrt deployed again to the Persian Gulf as an Aviation Duty Officer in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom/Enduring Freedom onboard the Constellation.
“The Constellation was an all-male carrier except for the admiral staff and that was the last one, so it was interesting watching the transformation of putting women on the squadron,” Kehrt said.
From January 2004 to January 2007, he was the assistant maintenance officer, maintenance/material control officer and quality assurance officer at Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, California.
In January of 2007, Kehrt made multiple deployments to Yokosuka, Japan on board the USS Kitty Hawk where he met U.S. Navy Capt. Don Simmons, who retired last month.
“I’ve known Stephen since 2007, we were in Japan together. He was in intermediate maintenance activity and I was the commanding officer of the Fleet Readiness Center,” Simmons said. “He’s just a really good, level-headed officer — one of those officers that never got too excited or too dramatic, it was just all fact-based and he’s really smart with decision-making. It’s always a joy to talk to him and you knew he was going to do the right thing, which is nice.”
Kehrt did another tour in Japan from January 2009 to September 2011 as the AIMD assistant officer in charge for Operation Tomodachi and was there, along with Amy and their children, when the 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck off the Pacific coast of Tohoku in March of 2011.
“We did not evacuate and that was really crazy. You don’t know how people are going to react and I thought I would be a rock in that kind of situation,” Amy said. “So this huge earthquake happens and I huddle with the children and just froze. Other women that I thought would be great leaders just freaked out and we chose to stay instead of evacuate. I was the president of the officer spouses group and we had 108 spouses in my group — only eight stayed. It really was like a movie.”
Kehrt said it was the only time he had seen the base allow foreign nationals in to use the gas station.
“The Japanese ran out of gas and it was like the only time I’ve ever seen the base let foreign nationals go use the base gas station to fill up their cars and stuff,” Kehrt said.
Even with the earthquake, the Kehrts said Japan was their favorite place they were stationed.
Kehrt discussed some other memorable moments from his time in the Navy, which included a Line Crossing Ceremony tradition when crossing the equator.
“When you cross the equator you’re a Pollywog until you cross the equator and then once you cross the equator they dress up like Davy Jones and King Neptune and they do a whole thing where you do a bunch of fun tasks up on the flight deck,” Kehrt said with a laugh. “Afterwards, King Neptune tells you you’re a Shellback and a Golden Shellback is when you do it at zero-zero equator mark.”
Kehrt held other positions and continued his service before taking his last position at TOPGUN as the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center’s maintenance department head and contracting officer representative in Fallon, Nevada from October of 2017 to November of 2019.
“I was the director of Naval Aviation Maintenance in San Diego when we were having problems at TOPGUN, the weapons school — we weren’t able to get the aircraft flying and maintained to a satisfactory level and the right numbers — so we were having a hard time trying to find the perfect maintenance officer,” Simmons said. “That’s when Stephen’s name came up and we brought him in and he did an amazing job. That was his last tour of active duty, so for his last tour we were able to convince him to leave his family in Texas and move to Fallon, Nevada for two years for probably one of the toughest jobs in the Navy, to be the maintenance officer for TOPGUN. He just did an amazing job and the reason you don’t hear about any problems is because he was there for two years.”
At TOPGUN, Kehrt did maintenance on a variety of aircraft — Super Hornets, EA-18G Growler, F-16A/B Fighting Falcons, MH-60S Seahawk, E-2C Hawkeye and others.
“I went to TOPGUN and I got to be the maintenance officer, which I had always wanted to be so I really enjoyed that. I had about 60 ordinance guys and about 299 contractors from DynCorp,” Kehrt said.
Kehrt said the movie “Top Gun: Maverick” was also being filmed while he was working there and they worked on the plane that was used for Tom Cruise’s character “Maverick.”
“That airplane sat at the very end of the hanger bay and [Lt. Cmdr. Josh MacMurdo] said that airplane would never fly again, so there was word around that this movie was going to happen and then my admiral or captain came to me and said, ‘I need that airplane flying by the end of the month,’ and DynCorp — who did all the maintenance — had just taken everything out and it was a shell of an airplane at the time,” Kehrt said. “So they put all their effort and work into it and got that thing up and flying — they had to get it painted and everything.”
MacMurdo — who retired from the Navy two years ago — met Kehrt in 2001 and said since the Navy is a smaller community, he was able to connect with him a few times throughout the years, including during Kehrt’s time at TOPGUN.
“I knew him from when he had just started in the Navy, about 2001, and so I knew him as a young guy and then right as he retired. It’s a small Navy, you run into all kinds of people multiple times,” MacMurdo said. “He’s a super great dude, he’s fantastic. He is super patient and doesn’t freak out under pressure — a pretty level-headed dude. We have a really small community, I think the largest it ever was was about 520 of us and when he retired we’re down to less than 450 now and he was one of the good ones.”
Kehrt and Amy, along with their children — Ashley, Aledo High School senior; James, AHS sophomore; and Elizabeth, McAnally Intermediate sixth-grader — moved to Annetta four years ago. Kehrt said he will be looking to Lockheed Martin or Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. for a job once he officially retires.
“I’d like to work at Lockheed Martin, but they have to hire me and I’ll look at Bell Helicopter Textron — something in aviation,” Kehrt said.
A retirement ceremony was held for Kehrt on Nov. 1, but he will be officially retired from the U.S. Navy on Jan. 31.