What is it Like… To Save a Life?

Graham Baldwin ’95 graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1999 and served as a commissioned officer until 2007. He earned an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in 2008. Currently, he is the director of asset management and operations for Invenergy, a clean-energy company based in Chicago.

As a naval flight officer, I served as the weapons systems officer and navigator in the EA-6B Prowler electronic attack jet. In short, I was the Goose to Tom Cruise’s Maverick. Our primary mission was the suppression of enemy air defenses, like surface-to-air-missile systems and anti-aircraft artillery, using electronic signal jamming and our own offensive missiles.

Flying in the Prowler is really, really, exciting. You’re strapped into a 65,000-pound airplane, and you get shot off the front end of an aircraft carrier, going from 0 to 150 mph in less than 3 seconds. And when you have to land—going from 150 to 0 mph in 3 seconds—it’s on an aircraft carrier that’s pitching and rolling in the open ocean. It’s like riding the world’s greatest roller coaster. It’s the most incredible job in the world for a 23-year-old guy who thinks he’s indestructible.

After I finished flying in 2005, I still owed the Navy two more years of shore duty so I took a job as an ROTC instructor at Northwestern University. I was living two blocks from Wrigley Field, dating the woman who is now my wife, and generally having a lot of fun. But unexpectedly in 2006 the Navy sent me to Iraq for a year-long deployment. At the time, the leading killer of American soldiers was roadside bombs, most of which were set off by remote control. The enemy would attach a garage door opener or cell phone to an explosive, wait until a Humvee drove by, and push the button. The U.S. Army invested in electronic signal jammers to protect soldiers but it didn’t know much about jamming signals, which is what we had done really well in the Prowler. So as a result, we were pulled off our shore duty and sent to Iraq to help the Army.

I was embedded with an Army cavalry unit operating on the northern edge of Baghdad, assigned to a battalion with about 600 soldiers. My job was to teach them how to use electronic warfare tools, techniques, and procedures effectively. We put jammers in Humvees, backpacks, and stationary spots, and we started flying Prowlers over convoys to jam enemy roadside bombs or communications. We also went on patrols and raids to refine our tactics and teach them to soldiers headed for the battlefield.

One particularly memorable day, a soldier told me that I saved his life. He had parked his Humvee and was about to step out when he looked down and saw a bomb—an old Russian artillery shell with a cell phone attached to it. He hit the gas and, once he reached the end of the range of our jammers, saw the bomb blow up behind him. Somebody was trying to kill him, and my jammer had stopped it from going off. Initially, I was not too pleased being pulled from my comfortable desk job and sent to Iraq. But after talking to that soldier, I realized how important our work was and I was happy to stay there for as long as they needed me.

Graham Baldwin on…

Attending the United States Naval Academy:

The mission of the Naval Academy is to develop people morally, mentally, and physically. They try to challenge you in all three of those areas, basically every day. So it’s a pretty regimented lifestyle with demanding academics. Academics are first and foremost. But everybody’s required to play a sport, so when you’re done with class at the end of the day, you have to do something physical, from varsity sports all the way down to club sports. Everybody plays something, because you learn a lot by being in athletic competition.

Developing leadership skills at the academy:

They try to develop your leadership skills by putting you in situations that you’re not quite ready for, which serve as a learning opportunity. So as a plebe—a 1st year student—you’re not in charge of anybody, but by the time you’re a sophomore, junior, and senior, you’re put in charge of progressively larger units of people. So by the time I was a senior, I was a company commander in charge of 45 new students. My job was to train them the summer before their freshman year to prepare them. We call that plebe summer, to get them ready to be midshipmen at the academy. It’s everything from learning how to put on your uniform, how to march, and whom to salute. Essentially, it’s basic training for the new recruits. What I learned pretty quickly is that, if I want the plebes to be out there with their uniforms squared away at 5:30 a.m., then I need to be there at 5 a.m. And if I’m putting them to bed at 10 p.m., I’m staying up until midnight. So I learned that it’s harder to lead, and you’ve got to care a lot to be a good leader. And I learned all those things by doing them. So it was a four-year leadership laboratory.

During that summer, which lasts 60 days or so, there are folks who don’t meet the standard mentally or physically. As the company commander, I was the one who had to tell them if they didn’t make it. You’ve got to be really honest with them, and with yourself, to tell them a hard truth at that point. Most of them already know. If it’s a surprise to them, then I wasn’t doing a very good job as their leader, which is another good lesson. Even today, with the employees who work for me, if we’re in an annual review situation and something is news to them, I haven’t done a very good job communicating what they’ve done well and what they’ve done poorly.

I learned throughout my time at the fleet when I was in charge of larger groups of people, that when we fly together, when we train together, eventually we’ll go into combat together. You’re going to be flying with them as your wingmen, and you need to be sure that they’re ready.

What it’s like to be in a jet that’s landing on an aircraft carrier:

There’s nothing like actually landing on a ship, because the ship is moving away from you at maybe 30 miles per hour, and it’s heaving and pitching and rolling in the open ocean. You might be lined up on the approach and everything is right, but then two seconds later you’ll be too low, and then the ship moves again, and it’s very challenging.

But there’s always a landing signals officer (LSO) who’s standing on the back of the aircraft carrier, looking up at you, and he or she is talking to you on the radio, letting you know how you’re doing. The LSO will give you standardized calls that tell you what you’re doing and sort of coach you on the way down. So you might be sweating because you’ve been over Afghanistan for eight hours and you’re finally coming back to the ship, but it’s the middle of the night and the deck is moving. And everybody is tired and you’ve only got enough fuel left for one more pass or else you have to go and land in Pakistan, and nobody wants to land in Pakistan, so you better get this thing aboard. But that LSO is cool as a cucumber, he’s out there just talking you right into it.

And I’m not the one actually flying, so I’m like an armchair psychologist, telling the pilot that everything’s fine. We sit side-by-side in the cockpit and I’m talking to the pilot and telling him or her what the rate of decent is, and if I see the path going one way or another I can help the pilot understand the deviation. But it’s up to him or her to put the correction in and fly a good pass.

Living in Afghanistan:

Afghanistan is beautiful and sad in many ways. With the Himalayan Mountains, the territory is rugged and beautiful, but it’s also poor. We were flying over mud homes on the sides of mountains, looking at subsistence farmers and herds of goats. We would try to stimulate the local economy by having a little bazaar, like a market kind of thing, at the gate of the base to try to inject some money to stimulate their economic development. But mainly we just stayed on the base and flew our missions.

Working in the energy sector:

While I was in Baghdad I thought a lot about what to do with my life and what kind of career I wanted. The energy industry became clear to me pretty quickly. I think that the energy space is one where a many things—like national security, environmental concerns, and economics—come together. This is a huge business, and it’s very important to our modern way of life, which is all wrapped up in energy. I also know that these assets last a long time, so the investment choices we make today will be important to my kids and grandkids. So I thought the energy business would be an exciting and rewarding place to be.

Graduating from USM:

University School made a great difference to me. I was the smart kid when we showed up to Annapolis. The U.S. Naval Academy is pretty selective and I felt lucky to be admitted, but I was so well prepared because of USM. Academics at the academy are rigorous but my route was a bit easier because USM had prepared me so well. Everything else was hard—I couldn’t do pushups as well as those guys could. My roommate, who’s a doctor now, taught me how to shine shoes, make a bed, march straight, and all the stuff I didn’t know how to do. But I taught him the fundamental theorem of calculus, which Mr. [Tom] Bergen had taught me. It was a team effort to get to graduation and I’m grateful for the boost that USM gave me.

More from “What is it Like…”

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What is it Like… To Lead in the Face of Adversity?

What is it Like… To Work at the Vatican?

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