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Talk Story with Capt. Bruce Hay commanding officer of PMRF

BARKING SANDS — Capt. Bruce Hay is a leader and a straight shooter. His career in the U.S. Navy is impressive and distinguished.

In July, Capt. Hay relieved Capt. Nicholas Mongillo as commanding officer of the Pacific Missile Range Facility, becoming the 25th Naval officer to hold the post.

While he may run a tight ship on base — he is kind, caring and not afraid to show his humorous side when opportunity permits.

As I turned on the tape recorder for our early afternoon chat, Capt. Hay questioned whether the device would even pick up his voice. He jokes it often causes marine mammals to breach.

“Whenever I’m in San Diego, easily more than half the time I’m in the proximity of the water, I see marine mammals breach,” he said. “So I said, ‘I think it’s probably your voice.’ Those low-frequency waves are permeating into the ocean.”

Unfortunately, our interview came just hours after news of the deadly shooting at Washington Navy Yard, a somber day both at PMRF and bases around the country.

Despite PMRF being under heightened security, Capt. Hay agreed to move forward with the interview, discussing both base operations and his personal life in his new island home.

“It’s easy talking about PMRF because the people are so amazing. And it’s easy talking about Kauai because everyone is so friendly,” he said. “I’m dreading leaving in three years.”

An EA-6B Naval flight officer, Capt. Hay has accrued more than 2,600 flight hours and 802 carrier arrested landings, as well as made the first EA-6B Prowler night-vision device landing in Bagram, Afghanistan. He was also part of the historic 10-month deployment with the USS Abraham Lincoln during Operation Iraqi Freedom and served as the Operations Officer for the USS Nimitz (CVN-68), where he was awarded a peer-nominated Navy and Marine Corps Leadership Award.

TGI: First, please tell our readers a little about your background. How did you find yourself in paradise?

Capt. Bruce Hay: I grew up in upstate New York and then did really well in school. I wanted to go to college but didn’t want to bankrupt my parents, so I looked into scholarship programs. At the time, believe it or not, Top Gun had just come out. A very powerful recruiting tool. I saw a way to make a couple things happen: Do something interesting and go to college without bankrupting my parents.

I did that, vacillated throughout college with what I wanted to do when I got in the Navy, and it turns out I went back to flight stuff. Got my commission. Went down to Pensacola, learned how to fly and have liked it ever since. My wife, who I’ve known since eighth grade — we’re true high school sweethearts — we kind of had a pact that said, ‘When it stops being fun we’ll go find something else to do.’ When your job becomes work, work’s a four-letter word right? So far it’s been fun.

I was offered the opportunity to come out here and obviously there was no hesitation. I tell my wife it’s a reward more for her for having to put up with me all these years, and all the long separations, then it is about me. But I’ve been here since the middle of May and, people on base have heard me say this repeatedly; You go to a lot of beautiful places, and usually either people are nice or the location is nice. Here the people are as beautiful, or more so, than the scenery and that says a lot. We just spent probably half of our lunch talking about what we take for granted here on Kauai already that I wish we could export back to the Mainland. The respect for each other. The driving slowly so you don’t miss an opportunity to wave at your aunty or uncle. Now that we are fortunate enough to be here, I’m already dreading leaving in a couple years.

TGI: How are you settling into the new job? Is everyone treating you kindly so far?

CBH: I’ve been here long enough I’m dangerous because I know a little bit about everything. I trained to be a naval flight officer, and operate off carriers and all that. You don’t come into the Navy thinking you’ll end up commanding a base. So it’s been very professionally rewarding for me, because I’ve had to greatly expand my knowledge base to be effective here.

I’ve learned about endangered species, the missile defense agency, civilian military relations, alternative energy and this whole gamut of things. It’s been rewarding there and the people have been every bit as accommodating. I think I quickly learned that I want the same thing they want, to do a good job and to continue to increase the stature and reputation of PMRF. One thing I have noticed, because it’s a small island, the six degrees of separation that exists on the Mainland, it’s about a half here. We’ve been many, many places where people recognize me already. My wife jokes, ‘Be careful what you do with your fingers in the car because people might be watching you.’

TGI: As the man in charge, how do you choose to describe PMRF?

CBH: I’ve used many terms. But basically, I tout our nothingness. Have you seen the Snapple commercial? You’ve won nothing? Well one of the strengths of PMRF is we have nothing. We have 2.1 million square miles of extended range out here that has nothing on it. We’re not impacting large shipping lanes. We’re not impacting large civilian air traffic lines. We’re not disrupting the ability of people to make their livelihood by doing our operations.

So, if I look at our competitors on the Mainland, they have to impinge upon people’s livelihoods to carry out the mission, where out here it’s still a concern, but not nearly to the extent it is any place else. So, we have a gigantic range. We’re also in a great location as our country rebalances where we spend our time and focus. And I look at Hawaii as a stopover. I kind of tout our nothing and then the fact that we are the experts at a lot of different things.

TGI: What has been the biggest challenge for you so far?

CBH: Thinking about how to pay for everything. We come from the fleet. When I’m an operator I take my system, an airplane or a ship, and I just go do my mission. I don’t think about the fiscal part. There’s somebody else figuring that out. Now, as a guy creating business, attracting customers, how do I provide that service? Well, that service has a cost associated with it that I’ve never had to be concerned with before. Now, I have to look at how much things cost and what are the tradeoffs. My funding stream during my timeline here is probably going to be smaller when I leave then it was when I first showed up.

TGI: I know it’s early, but what progress would you say you have made as the new commander?

CBH: It’s funny, I talked about increasing our relevancy through increasing our demand. I’m like a giant cheerleader for the base. You know, touting our nothingness. And that has resonated very deeply already. I expected it to take a lot longer to generate the interest in the range facilities, and the ability to leverage that large amount of space. We have some pretty significant work lined up for the next two years, that has just materialized under my watch, by me connecting the right people to talk, to generate that business. So, I’m pretty proud of that. I’ve only been the guy in charge for two months, and we are increasing our visibility.

TGI: What are your thoughts about the proposal for the expanded danger zone surrounding PMRF?

CBH: Scrutiny is good, you know? You think about all the laws that we have and consumer protections, that were generated by scrutiny from some group. I think that’s a good thing, that people are interested and paying attention to what’s going on out here. The ability to do what we do and be forthcoming and open and honest with everybody is really important. Questions from the public are always welcome.

You already have a wide amount of access, but sometimes we do stuff, like launch those commercial satellites. I want to be a good neighbor and I don’t want to land rocket debris on you or singe you with spray or anything like that. So, expanding that zone, which is only going to be used when we need it — that’s the important part — I think it’s a culmination of a lot of things. Ultimately it allows us to be a better neighbor because we tell you what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, exactly how long it’s going to take, and then as soon as we’re done we let you go back to walking on the beach, or fishing or whatever you’re going to do.

I think it’s important for people to realize it’s done with safety in mind, and we’re only going to use it when it’s absolutely necessary. And when we do, we’ll publicize it widely.

TGI: Is the entire coastline of PMRF open to the public for surfing and other recreational activities?

CBH: Most of it. Where the runway is, that’s where Kinikini Ditch is. When I’m flying airplanes, that’s a law, I can’t have people near there. I don’t get to pick and chose what rules I follow in the military.

We keep people out of the dunes because of the cultural and historical value. We want to protect that. People care deeply about what’s potentially underneath that sand, and I appreciate that.

The waterfront is always open unless we keep you off. If we have boats out there stopping you, it’s only for a very short period of time. Now, if you get an MWR pass, which I highly recommend, you pay a nominal fee and that gives you three-year access to almost the entire coastline. It will never be the old days, where people drove on and did whatever they want, but we’re trying to get to the point where everyone who wants to come out here, can. Have you been out to our beach? It’s spectacular. There’s no other way to express it. So I want people who care about that to be able to use it.

TGI: How is the NASA/UH launch pad project going?

CBH: The pad is basically done. We still have to mount some hardware that we’ll use for alignment and to do elevation for the rocket, but we’re basically ready to go. Now we’re just waiting for the rocket and all the other things. It was supposed to be this fall, but it’s actually pushed off to this spring. And that danger zone helps us because now we can launch from that part of the base.

I would love to be able to pay interns, because if you come out here there’s a chance you’re going to stay. And if you stay, you could stay 25, 35, 45 years, and that’s experience that stays on the base. Money we don’t have to spend to retrain people.

TGI: Would you agree that PMRF is a family?

CBH: Absolutely. It’s not the military team, or the government team, or the contract team. It’s PMRF. A lot of people, they care about the mission, they care about the people out here. And when you think of military, that’s not what you think about. And that’s touching. It’s infectious. I’m the guy in charge. I want to make sure I continue to foster that, and live up to that ideal that my base already lives every day.

TGI: What are some of your goals moving forward?

CBH: Continue to cultivate business for PMRF, so that it continues to be a center of excellence. We have nothing. God bless the Snapple people. And now it’s just connecting that customer base. I’d like to be able to hire the people right out of Kauai Community College, or the University of Hawaii. Again, increase the amount of Kauai that’s in PMRF.

TGI: What is one thing most people don’t know about PMRF that you think they should?

CBH: It’s more than just the obvious. It’s not just ballistic missile testing. We’re training the Fleet all the time. We train our international partners. Since I’ve been here we’ve had the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, the Australians have come out here to do work. Not only are we benefiting our own military, but we’re strengthening our ties throughout Asia, Australia, Japan. RIMPAC is another opportunity to work with a coalition of many, many nations. Kauai is important to all of Hawaii and the United States, but I think that is pretty neat when we are the interface of the United States through all these other countries. It’s a small base. We’re in an isolated location. But, we’re doing big things for very important people all across the globe.

TGI: When you’re not working, how do you and your wife like to spend your time? Have you picked up surfing?

CBH: Right now, I’m my wife’s man servant for lack of a better term. My wife is a huge gardener and obviously everything thrives here. So if you were to drive by my house, she has a stack of plants that have accumulated while I was off-island for a couple weeks. So this weekend, I actually have some spare time, so you’ll see me with a shovel, planting and spending time outdoors.

I look forward to kayaking here. I’m not going to surf. I’m not good enough. But I would like to do all the river kayaking. My free time I like to spend outside, and there’s no better place then here. I’m a child at heart, so I want to go outside and play.

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