Capt. Kevin P. Lenox believes that his years growing up in West Windsor helped prepare him for his career as an officer in the U.S. Navy.
Lenox took command of CVN-68, the USS Nimitz, in a ceremony held aboard the vessel on Jan. 12, when it was in port at Naval Base Kitsap in Bremerton, Washington. Lenox succeeded Capt. John C. Ring, who had been in command since July 2014.
Nimitz, a super aircraft carrier, is one of the world’s great warships and after the inactivation of USS Enterprise in 2012, the oldest carrier in the U.S. fleet. It’s a prestigious posting for a decorated officer whom West Windsor can claim as its own.
Lenox, a West Windsor-Plainsboro High School graduate, said that growing up in the school district helped him absorb the value of living in a diverse society that he would come to find as the norm in the military.
“One of my favorite things growing up in West Windsor was that I had friends from so many faiths and cultures. It wasn’t unusual to go to a bar mitzvah one weekend, a confirmation the next and then celebrate with my Hindu friends the next,” he says. “Once I was out in the world, I realized how not normal that is.”
He has seen this ideal realized on every ship and each squadron he has been part of. “You can be side by side with people on the opposite side of the political spectrum,” he says. “But on the ship, we all have a job to do. If you do your job well, everyone loves you; if not, everyone else has to pick up the slack.”
“As contentious as society can be today, with Twitter, and everybody in their own stovepipes on Facebook where they get the news from their side of aisle—that is left on the side,” he adds.
Looking at his diverse crew on the Nimitz, whose average age he estimates at 24 or 25, Lenox says, “People of different beliefs can come together, and we are hoping that everyone will succeed. That is very Pollyanna-ish, but it would be really neat if we could pull that off.”
Lenox’s first foray into the military was driven by finances. His father said he would only pay for Lenox’s first year at Duke University. During high school, Lenox had applied for and failed to get an ROTC scholarship, but once at Duke, he managed to secure a Navy ROTC scholarship that paid for his last three years.
“After college, I went right into flight school,” Lenox says. “Early on, I enjoyed being a young guy in my 20s, flying fast machines, going around the world and seeing cool places.”
Lenox said the film Top Gun was being screened when he entered the Navy, and it made the life of a pilot seem exciting. Also, while he was growing up, Lenox loved the rush he got from the rides during frequent trips to Great Adventure. That was one reason he wanted to fly planes.
“I grew up going to Great Adventure and riding roller coasters, and flying is a kind of grown-up version of that,” he says.
During his entire career, Lenox has served as a helicopter pilot. Probably the most challenging type of mission, he says, is combat search and rescue, where he has had to bring back a downed aviator from behind enemy lines.
Ten years into his service, he worked as maintenance officer over 100 sailors, whose job it was to ensure readiness of a squadron of eight helicopters. “I found I was getting more excited waking up every morning and getting those sailors to work together to get the helicopters ready, and I realized I needed to head in a direction where I can run things and be in charge.”
Management works for him, he suggests, because “I like solving problems and love helping sailors get where they want to.”
Helping others realize their personal goals, he adds, is not entirely altruistic. Because people stay in a naval posting for a few years at most, “It’s not like you are retaining talent; it’s about getting everyone to work together. If they get the sense that you are interested in their success, it helps them be interested in your success as the leader of the organization.”
On the Nimitz, which is anchored in Bremerton, at the south end of Puget Sound, all 3,100 sailors have been at work preparing for a big inspection, where 250 experienced Navy personnel “check every nut and bolt, bed and machine,” Lenox says.
Nimitz, which was named for World War II Pacific fleet commander Chester W. Nimitz, was launched in 1972 and cost $1 billion to build. Commissioned in 1975, Nimitz is currently the lead ship in her class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. The ship has accommodations for more than 5,000 people.
Nimitz is powered by two Westinghouse A4W Nuclear Reactors that produce more than 200 megawatts of energy. The ship’s nuclear power allows it to store 50 percent more ammunition and almost twice as much aviation fuel as the largest conventional steam carrier.
Navy personnel, including captains of huge aircraft carriers like Nimitz, serve for about two-and-a-half to three years on a single assignment. The Navy joke about this is “that’s the longest a human can stay awake.” More seriously Lenox says, “It’s a long enough time that you can really get to know the organization and influence the outcomes of some long-term projects, but short enough that more people can get to do the job.”
At each level, he explains, it is important that you do well but also are preparing for the next level.
A ship’s assignment varies. Last year, Nimitz underwent a lot of maintenance, but in September training started for the next missions. Lenox estimates that its sailors will spend nine or 10 months away from home in 2017.
One of the main roles of an aircraft carrier is the projection of power, says Lenox. “We have the ability to take a carrier anywhere in the world, and with our fighter jets, can project power ashore.”
“Just our presence in a region sends signals to different countries in the world that we care about that area,” Lenox says. “It lets our allies know we’re there for them and potential enemies know that we’ve got our allies’ backs. An aircraft carrier is said to be one of best ways for a president to signal his intentions in an area.”
Asked whether the Navy is concerned about increased tensions in Asia and the Middle East, Lenox says, “Certainly we are prepared for anything that can happen out there. Like any professional military, we work hard, train hard and prepare for war, but hope for peace.”
Sometimes Lenox’s naval training and equipment have come in handy when encountering people in trouble, whether civilians after an earthquake or a tsunami, sailors on a sinking freighter, or pilots from an F14 who needed to be pulled out of the water.
“I’ve had good fortune of being in places where folks needed help,” Lenox says. “The Navy is not a humanitarian organization; we train to win in Navy combat—but these skills and capabilities can be translated to help people if you are in the right place at the right time.”
Deployments can be difficult for those left at home, like his wife of seven years, Sandy, an acupuncturist.
“You stay in touch, talk as much as you can, send each other emails, try to keep each other in your minds and in your heart, and you keep doing your day-to-day job waiting for the other to come back,” he says. Family readiness groups on shore allow those who are more experienced in making their way without a spouse help out newer families.
When the ship is docked in Bremerton, Lenox lives onboard. Most sailors either go home to their families or, for singles, live in barracks on shore. On the ship, living quarters are much tighter; accommodations range from two to four in a room for officers and 80-bunk barracks for enlisted sailors. There is a lounge for watching television and hanging out. Cappuccino is available from big espresso machines.
But sailors are busy all day, including eight to 10 hours at their jobs, plus some time either exercising or working on college classes. “You get sleep when you can,” he says.
For more introverted sailors, he adds, it can be hard to “get that moment of alone time,” although he says there are little dark corners on ship where people can hang out and think. Or they can go to the library or to the Internet café, which is located all the way forward in the ship, near where the crew eats.
Extroverts, on the other hand, “all get energized, because there is always someone to talk to,” Lenox says.
Looking at early role models, Lenox named both his parents. He admired his father, a textile sales executive in New York City, “just seeing him get up early and go to work each day, providing for the family.”
For his mother, it was the way she valued education, choosing to go back to school at night “because she wanted to get her education. It was a decision on her part that education was important.” She graduated summa cum laude from Trenton State College, earning a bachelors in psychology and a masters in speech pathology.
The values he gained from his parents, he says, included trying hard, being honest, going after your goals, and having to finish something once you have committed to it. This last he learned by watching his younger brother in youth soccer, who was told: “If it’s not fun halfway through you can’t quit because you agreed to be part of that game.”
Because his older brother, who was hearing impaired, spent considerable time away from home studying at two schools for the deaf, Lenox says, “I’m told I have some characteristics of a middle child but some of a firstborn child because he wasn’t really around up until high school.” Last summer, when Lenox attended his 30th high school reunion and saw folks from his kindergarten class, he realized how fortunate he was to grow up and be educated largely in one community and particularly in West Windsor.
“What I realized is that West Windsor-Plainsboro as a public school system is a really world-class place to get an education,” he says. “I was fortunate with the quality of friends I had and the quality of education I had that set me up to succeed in the world.”
He points in particular to the focus on writing and vocabulary. He said that when he was an engineering student at Duke University, his friends in the liberal arts told him that he “writes really well for an engineer, and I can think back to how hard my 8th grade English teacher pushed me to write well.”
In school, he also gained a sense the world’s diverse cultures. “Even when I arrived at college, I was pretty conversant in what was out there in terms of culture, religion and geography,” he says.
His favorite subject was biology, with math a strong second, so when he had to choose a college major, he says, “I tried to combine them together, which is why got to biomedical engineering.”
His family attended St. Paul Roman Catholic Church in Princeton and then St. David the King in Princeton Junction, giving him “a firm moral grounding.”
Lenox’s brothers were the family athletes, whereas he was “the nerd in the family.” So when he hit high school, he switched from sports to Model UN and the debate team.
Right after he graduated from college, his parents moved to North Carolina, where his older brother also lives. His younger brother lives in Kansas City, Missouri.
Lenox’s favorite port is Singapore, he says, because “I can get both authentic Asian street food and get their culture for the price of one.” Singapore blends Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese cultures, he explains, and “it’s neat to see them all in one city. You can go to high end or go to street stalls and eat like a local. It’s a great place to dive into cultures so different from here.”
The keel of the USS Nimitz was laid one month before Lenox’s birth in 1968. “In a sense, it has been around all my life,” he says.
As to why he chose a naval career, he says, “My experiences in the Navy are what made me want to stay. Once I got into the fleet, I enjoyed the travel and going out in the world and making a difference.” As he likes to tell his sailors, “All of your friends read history, but you will be able to be a part of history.’”