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Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC)

Excelling at “Remote” Leadership

by Navy Expeditionary Combat Command Public Affairs Office
04 January 2023 Cmdr. John Keefe has spent the last couple of years commanding one of the Navy’s most preeminent forward-deployed units in the Pacific, leading approximately 230 expeditionary Sailors in undertaking some of our Nation’s most challenging and dynamic missions at Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 5.
He was recently selected as the Pacific Fleet recipient of the 2022 Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale Award for inspirational leadership. Keefe was humbled to learn of his selection, and said that he continues to evolve as a leader every day and is passionate about the EOD community’s mission.
“Vice Adm. Stockdale is one of the finest leaders our nation has produced,” said Keefe. “I don’t feel like I deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. I just love being part of high functioning teams and I joined the Navy EOD community to do important work with talented and motivated people.  I enjoy working with the Sailors who make it happen every day.”
The Stockdale Award is peer-driven, meaning only those who are eligible for the award themselves are allowed to nominate others for consideration, so despite his humble acknowledgement of his selection, it's clear he has a lot of supporters.   
Keefe now works at the Pentagon as part of the Chief of Naval Operations team for Expeditionary Warfare, however, the inspirational work that placed him among the esteemed list of nominees this year actually took place on the other side of the world, and in one of the military’s most remote duty stations.
“Somebody once told me, ‘If you’re looking for a reason to hate Guam, the island will give you one every day.  But if you’re not looking for that reason, then you’ll love it,” said Keefe. “We did quite a bit to focus on building esprit de corps, especially coming out of the COVID pandemic which hit our Sailors in Guam especially hard (some of our Sailors did more than 180 days of ROM in a 24 month OFRP).  We did monthly BBQs, island hikes, and plenty of family events.  Members of the command organized Guam’s first ever EOD Memorial Ball, which raised a lot of awareness for EOD-related organizations.”
Keefe’s love of the island life goes well beyond its predictable sunshine, crystal blue waters, and pristine beaches.  He expressed that his fulfilment is a combination of the myriad of operational opportunities that exist in the theater and the camaraderie his team built along the way.
“There’s no better place to be an EOD tech than in Guam,” said Keefe.  “On any given day, we’d be doing freefall and static line parachute operations, mixed gas decompression diving, underwater detonations, demolition operations on the compound, and rappelling from our tower.  I am also a firm believer that good commands come together to do hard things, so we did command workouts every Monday and Friday.  Those were great opportunities to interact with Sailors outside of the shop.  I felt like those PT sessions really helped us maintain our warfighting culture and build our sense of community.”
With Sailors continually deployed across the Indo Pacific, conducting operations and exercises in places like Australia, Philippines, Korea, Japan and Indonesia, the need for community was not only important for the Sailors under Keefe’s charge, but also their families.       
“We had an amazing spouse network and I found that our Sailors enjoyed more off-duty time together than I’ve seen in other duty stations,” said Keefe. “EODMU 5 Sailors and their families essentially became our family as we were thousands of miles away from home.”
Leadership comes with challenges in every environment.  Keefe’s approach to building and maintaining a positive culture in Guam was through challenging his Sailors to discover the potential that lay before them.
“When Sailors checked into the command, I sat down with them and outlined my expectations during their tour,” said Keefe.  “At the end of the conversation, I’d hand them a deck of cards and we’d talk about all of the amazing opportunities at the command and in Guam.  I’d tell them that when the Navy cut them orders to EODMU 5, they just got dealt the best hand of their life.  But just like in cards, it’s up to them how they play their hand.  So the cards were a metaphor for opportunity and responsibility.”
Much like the challenge Keefe gave his Sailors in exploring their own realm of possibilities, his journey in leadership has been an evolving process during his career.
“Any of my former bosses will tell you that I demonstrate shortfalls on a daily basis,” said Keefe. “My mistakes as a 22 year old Ensign still teach me lessons today. I am still refining myself as a leader, because I frequently have to adjust after I screw things up.  I have had the opportunity to be around some great leaders and a common trait is that they always try to get better.  So that’s what I try to do as well.”
Leadership in military organizations is unquestionably a learned skill, and Keefe credits his mentors with helping shape his foundational principles.  His late father-in-law, Navy Capt. (ret) John Pasko, commanded a ballistic missile submarine and shared many tenets of leadership and command during their time together.  Keefe said that he tries to honor his legacy by living out those teachings every day. Other influences, like Rear Adm. (ret) Frank Morneau impressed upon Keefe the importance of integrity—a lesson which he now continues to pass along.
“That deck of cards I hand to the Sailors at check-in has the command logo and the phrase, ‘Do right, fear no one,’” said Keefe.  “I picked that phrase up from Rear Adm. Morneau some years back and it really resonated with me.  I felt that the command had a lot of important work to do, and the only way we’d be able to get it done is by doing the right thing.  And that means doing the right thing all the time, whether down range or off duty.  After all, if you’re doing the right thing, you’ve got nothing to fear.”