Meet the Crew: Capt. John F. Meier, Commanding Officer CVN 78

Story by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ryan Litzenberger

The ambient sounds of construction could be heard beyond the walls of the room as 10 Sailors sit silently around a luxurious dining table, waiting for the last member of the meeting to arrive. Despite the sounds of hammers and drilling, it is a homely room with its wood paneling, colorful carpet, framed photos and portraits of the late Gerald R. Ford, and the smell of freshly baked cookies that fill a large plate on the table. It is easy to forget that the room is on an aircraft carrier.

At long last, Capt. John F. Meier, a native of Export, Penn. and the first-ever commanding officer of the future USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), enters his in-port cabin and smiles at the small group of newly arrived Sailors.

“Good afternoon everyone,” he says with a smile, and then points to the plate of cookies. “I only have one rule about those cookies, and that is to eat them all!”

In-port cabin luncheon with PCU Ford Sailors

Captain John F. Meier, Commanding Officer of PCU Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), meets with Ford Sailors for lunch in his in-port cabin.

Laughter escapes from the group of new Ford Sailors as they start to help themselves to the cookies. Meier takes a seat at the head of the table, looks around at his new Sailors, and begins the conversation by introducing himself—just as he has done with every other Sailor that has checked aboard CVN 78.

“I was growing up at a time when it looked like the U.S. and the Soviet Union were at a collision course for World War Three,” says Meier. “There was a lot of friction in the world, between the United States and Soviet Union specifically. We were in the peak of the Cold War when Reagan was elected in 1980.

“He really drove the point to the nation of ‘peace through strength’, and when he was elected, our military had gotten pretty weak. As a result, I think our national resolve was questioned, and our military strength was in doubt. Reagan knew that if he wanted to negotiate with the Soviet Union, that he had to do so from a position of strength.

“I was always interested in those affairs and followed them closely throughout the course of that. Over time I became a strong believer in peace through strength. I thought that the stronger we were as a navy, the less likely there would be someone to attack us.”

Meier attended Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, Penn., where he liked to keep up with national matters and heavily involved himself in athletics.

“I was a pretty decent student in high school and was involved with sports—football in particular. I played outside linebacker, and I was pretty good at it—well, good enough at least to be invited to play at the Naval Academy.“

The time spent as a part of the Naval Academy’s football team would be limited for Meier, for academics and athletics—both challenging and time-consuming—would conflict. He had to make a choice.

“I was struggling with academics as a mechanical engineering student,” says Meier. “It was very time-consuming, and athletics took a lot out of that. I came to the realization that I really wasn’t there to play football. I was there to get commissioned and get a degree.”

That is exactly what Meier did, and from there, he went straight to flight school where he would spend the next two years earning his wings and becoming a naval pilot. He joined his first squadron just before Operation Desert Storm. He was motivated and set a goal for himself: to be the best pilot in the Navy.

“Every flight that I flew, I pushed myself to do better. Every landing I did, I looked at what I did wrong and what I could do better,” says Meier. “In the Navy, we have this system that is ‘plan, brief, execute, debrief’. It’s kind of a circle, and that process gets really refined. It goes beyond just how you do your job, but how you live your life—the actions that you make in and out of uniform.

“A lot of that drive for perfection came from the preparations of going into Desert Storm. We were briefed that we were expecting significant loss. When you hear that, it changes you. You want to go into a situation such as that being as good as you can possibly be. You don’t want to just show up to work and fly into such an operation. It doesn’t work like that.”

As the end of Meier’s first tour in the Navy drew near, the choice to stay in or leave had to be made. This decision turned into a process and would not only have a huge impact on his life, but the other Sailors around him as well.

“I didn’t want to do it rationally, I wanted to do it methodically, and I went so far as to have a list of reasons to stay and to go,” says Meier. “I kept the list in my desk, and every time something happened, I’d flip it up and I’d write it down. The dislikes ended up far outweighing the likes, so as I’m going through that process, I realized that all of the things that I didn’t like—or the things that I thought were broken—wouldn’t have gotten fixed. Not by me anyway, maybe by someone else. It wouldn’t have been my problem anymore, and I essentially would have just walked away from it.

“That’s when it really struck me that that’s not the kind of person that I am. I don’t like to walk away from problems, but attack them head on.”

“When I came to that realization that I was going to stay, I made a vow to myself that I wasn’t just going to go through the motions and just be here for a paycheck. I was going to make a difference. I was going to fix things and make them better. And that’s really what drove me then, and that’s what drives me today.”

As commanding officer of Pre-commissioning Unit Gerald R. Ford, Capt. Meier routinely provides distinguished visitors and key stakeholders with tours of Ford that demonstrate the impact technological advances will have on the mission and quality of life for the crew.

“After a series of various tours and interesting staff jobs, I entered the Nuclear Power Program and ultimately found myself accepting the position as the first commanding officer of [CVN 78]. It’s been an incredibly rewarding career and an incredibly rewarding life. I’ve been all over the world. I’ve flown into harm’s way multiple times. I’ve gotten the opportunity to lead our nation’s most precious assets: our Sailors, our sons and daughters.”

Although it has been an incredibly rewarding career, Meier says that none of his accomplishments or positions are what he is most proud of.

“What I am most proud of is the ability to affect change and impact Sailors’ lives in a positive way and the ability to bring out the best in people,” says Meier. “I think if you create the right climate and treat people well, you can kind of just take a step back and watch them thrive on their own. That’s really rewarding to me.”

Capt. John F. Meier, Commanding Officer of Pre-commissioning Unit Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), poses for a group shot with newly arrived Ford Sailors. Capt. Meier has met with all the Sailors assigned to Ford and has set the climate to impact his Sailors’ lives in a positive way .

A journey lasting more than 29 years in the Navy—from being a junior pilot to ultimately accepting the position as the first commanding officer of the most technologically advanced warship in the world—Meier has made a positive impact on many Sailors’ lives along the way, but he says that there is nothing more challenging than what he and his crew faces today.

“There’s nothing more challenging than being the first crew of a new class of aircraft carrier. The challenges this crew faces are significant. If this crew is properly led, properly driven and motivated, then they become driven to become the absolute best that they can be. We should all be striving to be the best, and that’s the culture I’m trying to create here.”

After the captain makes his introduction, he begins asking his new Sailors questions about their homes and why they joined the Navy. Smiles radiate from everyone as they carry on their first conversation with their commanding officer. Meier then addresses everyone at the table and explains his expectations and the culture the crew of CVN 78 is creating.

“I don’t think anyone should just blindly trust their leadership,” says Meier. “I think your trust is something we have to earn, and in the end, it’s your decision. Here at Gerald R. Ford, we strive to be the best, and it is my promise to everyone that every Sailor is evaluated by the content of their character and the quality of their work. This culture we are creating shall stay for the entire life of the ship, and it’s my hope that it extends even further beyond that.”

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