Navy lieutenant participates
in Somali piracy rescue effort © June 12, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications
For Navy Lt. Chris Matters, a Norwich University alumnus, word that Capt. Richard Phillips had been rescued from the captivity of a band of Somali pirates on April 13, 2009, was some of the best news he’s ever heard.
It wasn’t just because he was stationed aboard a naval warship that made an all-out, five-day rush to arrive at the Horn of Africa for the internationally watched standoff’s conclusion. And it wasn’t just because he was on the front lines of crafting a plan to secure the merchant seaman’s release. For Matters, who graduated in 1999 from Norwich, the nation’s oldest private military college, relief came from seeing a fellow countryman liberated from the kind of conflict American seamen aren’t accustomed to encountering.
“That changed the game,” said Matters, recalling the moment when they were first informed that an American had been taken hostage by pirates. “That was the first time in a long time that an American ship had been attacked.”
We’re very happy with the way it ended.
~ Chris Matters,
alumnus and Navy lieutenant
Phillips offered himself as a hostage to pirates in exchange for his crew’s safety during a failed attempt on April 8 to hijack a cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, under his command. As tension escalated over the course of five days, he ended up in a lifeboat with four captors that was shadowed, and eventually towed, by Navy destroyer USS Bainbridge. The situation ended when a team of Navy SEAL sharpshooters concealed on the Bainbridge took out the remaining captors. Phillips was taken to the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship similar to a small aircraft carrier, for a medical evaluation and rest. This was where Matters, of Lusby, Md., had experienced the event.
For Matters, participation in the situation was unexpected. Stationed on the island of Bahrain, his mission aboard the Boxer was largely to welcome a new commander, Rear Adm. Michelle Howard. He expected to return to dry land in four or five weeks. Howard had barely taken the reins of the multinational piracy task force, of which Matters was a staff member, when news of the hostage situation arrived. Situated in the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Sea, Matters said they headed immediately to the Somalia Basin—a distance of 2,000 miles.
“We traveled at the max speed of the ship for about five-and-one-half days,” he said.
During this time, he and other task force members worked 22- and 23-hour days, crafting a response plan under the guidance of their commander. They were receiving information and directives from the Bainbridge and the White House, and Matters said there was always a sense the situation was under control despite a host of unknown factors. It was a stressful time, however, and he recalls wishing they would get to the scene of the confrontation faster.
Upon arrival, they remained out of eyesight of the situation, however, in order to keep tension under wraps.
“We’re very happy with the way it ended,” said Matters, explaining that the situation had potential to end with the loss of American lives. He added that Navy procedures and personnel functioned well.
“Everything we had worked together fluently,” he said.
Matters said he ran into Phillips aboard the Boxer, and told him about attending Norwich in the captain’s home state of Vermont. Phillips replied that it was a small world. This, for Matters, sums up the Norwich experience perfectly. In fact, while aboard the Boxer, he spied a man wearing a Norwich polo shirt boarding the ship. It turned out that its wearer, John Swanson, was not an alumnus but has a son who is a current student.
“In the middle of the Indian Ocean, on a ship of 3,000 people, I run into a Norwich person,” Matters laughed.
He and Swanson, who works for the Navy’s criminal investigative division, remained aboard the Boxer for two-and-a-half months, crossing the equator four times in the course of the mission.
A communications major in college, Matters has been stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan since accepting a commission in the Reserves in 2003. He has served with Norwich alumni all over the world, and believes the leadership training he received during his senior year has influenced him as an officer.
“The tenacity that I have and the drive ... a lot of that comes from Norwich,” he said.
Matters added that playing a small role in the protection of a U.S. citizen from piracy ties his work in with the military heritage he absorbed as a member of Norwich’s Corps of Cadets.
“This is how the Navy essentially came to be ... protecting merchant ships.”