The Post-Journal

Former Fredonia, Navy Basketball Star On A Mission To Preserve Freedom

I look forward to checking my e-mail these days.

The ones from Michael Heary are especially enjoyable.

He's the former Fredonia High basketball star - an all-state player for that matter - who went on to the U.S. Naval Academy, is fourth on the Middies' all-time scoring list, played in two NCAA Tournaments and left Annapolis with a diploma that only our nation's elite obtain. He graduated four years ago, was married last October to Sarah, and, of course, continues to eat, drink and sleep college hoops.

So, for the last month, we've been exchanging e-mails, focusing particular attention on March Madness. Here's a sample of what he thought heading into Monday night's championship game.

"With Duke out of the tournament, I like Kansas because of their versatility with great inside and outside talent and a solid bench," he wrote. "I think coach (Roy) Williams will silence the critics and get his first NCAA title."

So what if his prognostication - Kansas lost to Maryland in the semifinals Saturday night - wasn't as tried and true as his jump shot? After all, it was made after doing plenty of homework.

"I've been able to keep up with the tournament through the Internet and we actually have satellite TV capabilities, so I've been able to watch the games as well. The satellite gives us about three channels from home, and one of the channels is usually dedicated to sports, so I, of course, love that channel!"

Yep, Heary only gets three channels. He has no cable. Forget about a personal satellite dish mounted on on his home. He's just hoping he'll be able to get time off work Monday night so that he can watch Indiana square off against Maryland.

Oh, did I mention where he's working?

The USS John F. Kennedy. Location: Arabian Sea. Mission: Operation Enduring Freedom.

Now you know why Heary's not kicking himself because Jason Williams of Duke missed a free throw that eliminated him from his wife's office pool.

Priorities take on an entirely different meaning when you're smack dab in the middle of a war.

"Enduring Freedom, to me, means that the quest to ensure America's freedom that we all enjoy so much is maintained," Heary wrote last week. "The success of this operation will have a direct impact on ensuring the freedom and safety of future generations of Americans."

"The mission for John F. Kennedy is to conduct flight operations and project power ashore to support the ground troops in Operation Enduring Freedom. How long we continue this mission is unknown, but like the president has stated numerous times, each and every member of the military is prepared for the fact that this could be a long battle against terrorism."

Heary, the son of Rita Heary of Dunkirk and the late Tom Heary, is the assistant weapons officer on the ship, and works directly for the weapons officer, who is a commander in the Navy.

"My job is to ensure any and all administrative matters pertaining to the approximately 220-person department are taken care of," he wrote. "Also I assist in force protection of the ship and make sure the ship has a good plan for protecting itself when we pull into a port or transit a strait while on deployment.

"Obviously, my role in force protection has taken on a greater importance since the attacks of 9/11."

Heary was living at the Jacksonville, (Fla.) Naval Base when the terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last Sept. 11. Immediately, the "completely shocked" Heary feared for this youngest sister, Michele, who lives in New York City. Fortunately she was fine, and Heary has refused to alter his daily routine in the aftermath of the horror.

"I've tried not to change my lifestyle too much because that is what these terrorists want us to do," Heary wrote. "They want us to NOT do the things that make America such a great nation, like, for example, traveling wherever you want, whenever you want. My view on my individual role in the Navy hasn't changed because I'm essentially doing the same things now that I was doing before 9/11. However, I'm more patriotic, prouder to be an American, and prouder to serve my country now that I ever have been."

Even if it means tremendous personal sacrifice.

After being married, Heary spent only four months in Jacksonville with Sarah before beginning his six-month deployment aboard the JFK in early February. Now the only connection they have is through daily e-mails and occasional care packages.

"Without question, the most difficult part of being in the Navy is leaving Sarah," Heary wrote. "I believe I'm the luckiest man in the world to have a wife who is so supportive, understanding and loving as she is. She understands that what we're doing at this point in ours lives is a sacrifice, but it's a sacrifice that is making America a better place to live."

And even when the loneliness creeps in, Heary is able to refocus on his duties aboard the ship simply by "thinking about all the families who had family members die in New York City, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon."

Heary, who turned 26 last Thursday, can relate to how they feel.

In 1993, his father, Tom, died after a lengthy battle with leukemia. At the time, Heary was only 16 and a junior in high school.

"I know what it's like to lose a loved one earlier than you want to lose that loved one," Heary wrote, "so I think about all the families, and, hopefully, the families can take some comfort in the knowledge that there are people out here who are trying their best to honor the memories of those who lost their lives Sept. 11, 2001."

Life on the JFK is, in Heary's words, "busy and fast-paced."

It's essentially a small city on water.

I did an Internet search and I found that the ship is 1,052 feet long, 23 stories high, has a horsepower of more than 200,000 and reaches speeds of 30 knots. Heary will call this place "home" until he returns to Jacksonville in August.

"There are so many 'moving parts' on an aircraft carrier, especially with all the flight operations that we have everyday," he wrote. "You get used to it, and I think it is important to find time to work out, read some books, and get your rest when you can because doing that keeps your sanity and keeps you fresh.

"Every day, I stand watch on the bridge ... where we drive the ship from, and that watch can be stressful at times. However, when things get tense up on the bridge, I try to keep as calm a demeanor as possible. I think I keep this demeanor because of my basketball playing days. It's similar to the last five minutes of a close game. When things get stressful, you need to have people who keep a calm, cool and level head because the people that can do that will have success."

Heary has always had that ability to rise to the occasion. I still remember in December 1993 when Heary and his Fredonia High teammates traveled to Buffalo to take on Traditional High. The gym was packed, the Bulls had a great team, led by Jason Rowe and Damian Foster, and a vocal, partisan crowd.

All Heary did was drop 62 points on them.

The Hillbillies lost in overtime, but when the horn sounded to end the game, Traditional fans, stunned by what they had just witnessed, lined up to shake hands with Heary, who had earned the respect of people he didn't even know.

A year later, when Heary was a freshman at Navy, I watched him score 31 points in a win over rival Army. After the game, my wife and I went out to dinner with Heary, his mother, Rita, his sister, Michele, and a bunch of other friends. The young plebe was the toast of Annapolis.

Fast forward seven years.

While fanfare, once a regular part of Heary's life when he had a basketball in his hands, has been replaced by warfare, I believe he is more heroic now than he ever was on the hardwood.

"It's interesting because fear is something that I don't feel too much out here," he wrote. "I trust and believe in God that He will take care not only of me, but everyone else on this ship and get us home safely when it is our turn to come home."

R.H. Henderson Jr. is the commanding officer of the JFK. On March 10, he delivered a speech to the ship's crew, numbering 4,500 strong, as they began strikes in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Heary sent me a copy of the remarks.

"He wrote an awesome, inspiring and emotional speech, " Heary wrote.

It read, in part:

For the rest of our lives, no matter whether we stay in the Navy or move on to civilian life, no matter what we do or where we go, we will remember that on 10 March 2002, we came together and struck a blow for freedom.

All of us are volunteers. Most of us joined the Navy to serve our country and better ourselves. Tonight, and in the nights to come, we are given the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to truly make a difference in the world.

The words left an indelible mark on Heary.


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