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A three-star career
After 38 years, "Big Al the Sailor's Pal" is finally hanging up his Navy uniform
By Stephanie Heinatz, Hampton Roads Daily Press, July 16, 2004
Article copied here for educational and informational purposes only

NAVAL STATION NORFOLK -- An overflowing blue folder is one of the few things left on Navy Vice Adm. Al Konetzni Jr.'s desk.

The bookshelves in his office, which at one time most likely held classified military information, are empty.

And even though on Thursday he still had to finish packing the half-dozen moving boxes scattered around his office and write a speech he is to give today, Konetzni couldn't help but sit down to rifle through the dozens of letters in that blue folder.

"This is just what came in the past three days," he said, tears welling up in his eyes as he pulled out a letter from a sailor he hardly remembered thanking him for letting him take time off a decade ago to be with his mother when she died.

"These are from sailors - from petty officers to flag officers," Konetzni said. "Most of them are people I've come in contact with at some point in my career and are very special to me."

Konetzni, the deputy commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command and the Atlantic Fleet, retires today after 38 years as a Navy officer.

Done are his four trips to Washington a week and the days of packing up an entire family to move across the world. Never again will he have to command a submarine or go against Navy tradition because of something he believes in.

Konetzni started his Navy career on June 27, 1962, at the U.S. Naval Academy as a "football dummy holder."

The academy, he said, was somewhat of a culture shock.

"I was born and raised in Queens, New York, and I learned at an early age that diversity was good," he said. "As you can imagine, in 1962 the Naval Academy was a bastion of white malehood. The closest thing we had to a minority was a Jewish guy or two."

By June 30 that year, Konetzni was filling out a personal information form in the "mess hall" of the school.

The first line of the form asked for his name. The second, date of birth.

"Block three said 'home of record,' " Konetzni said about the military's way of asking for your address. "I'd never heard that term."

So Konetzni, crying and homesick, decided to copy the guy sitting beside him.

Konetzni regretted immediately writing that he was from Miami. But before he could erase it a senior classman saw the "stupid mistake" and immediately announced to the entire incoming class that Konetzni was the first "zero."

"Meaning dumber than a box of rocks," he said. Because he was teased his entire first year, Konetzni said being a zero drove him to study harder and push himself further.

"But what about the rest of the zeros who were hazed and left," Konetzni said, his tone turning more somber. "Could we have somehow helped them? That's when the treatment of people became what defined my life."

After graduating, Konetzni became a submariner.

He accelerated in the ranks and rose from a submarine school graduate to the engineer officer of a sub still under construction and eventually to a sub squad leader and then commander of all the subs in the Pacific Fleet.

In Hawaii, as the sub fleet commander, Konetzni shook up the way the Navy does personnel business.

"In 1997 we were losing 25 percent of our first-termers," Konetzni said about sub sailors. "When I saw that data I was shocked. It equaled about 400 people a year."

When Konetzni went to learn why the loss was so high, he discovered that 100 of the sailors were "lost," not doing well and subsequently diagnosed with "personality disorders" and recommended for immediate release.

"Every submariner has a personality disorder," he said. "I decided I was going to change this culture."

He made commanders not only responsible for knowing how to fight a war and drive a sub, but they would also have to make sure their sailors were happy and stayed in the Navy.

Konetzni ordered, among other quality of life changes, sub crews to work lighter hours while in port.

Re-enlistment rates doubled and one seaman, who was on his way out before Konetzni pulled a few strings to keep him active duty, is getting ready to graduate from Old Dominion University under the seaman to admiral program.

Perhaps it was changing the personnel culture, among other things, that helped Konetzni earn the nickname that continues to make him blush - Big Al the Sailor's Pal.

Konetzni brought that same thinking - putting people first - to Norfolk.

When he first arrived in 2001, staffing ships was a problem.

"There was a whole lot of deck swapping going on," he said. "Meaning sailors would go from one ship to another and from one deployment to another."

Ships are now staffed, Konetzni said.

Konetzni also had his hands on the Navy's new Fleet Response Plan - a plan that calls for ships to shy away from the traditional six-month deployments and become more flexible and prepared to deploy anytime. At a time when the Navy was pushing its officers to get out of the service early, Konetzni emphasized that the plan would only work with enough sailors to staff ships and no ship would be ready if its sailors weren't mentally prepared.

Seven carriers are currently deployed under the plan and Konetzni says that's a good sign the plan is working.

What's next is something Konetzni hasn't figured out.

"I don't want to open doors to another career just because I am a retired admiral," he said.

For now Konetzni just wants to get through the retirement ceremony today without forgetting to thank anyone or choking up too many times.