Everyone has heard the old Navy recruiting slogan “Join the Navy – See the world.” It takes a special person, though, to follow through and visit a recruiter’s office, sign an enlistment contract, and put the slogan to the test. Master Chief Legalman David S. Leafer, U.S. Navy (Retired), did just that and found the Navy to be true to its word. Although it meant working long days at sea for months on end, a wartime deployment to the Red Sea onboard an aircraft carrier launching strikes deep into Iraq, and countless hours working on legal issues for the fleet, the opportunities Dave’s Navy career brought him exceeded his wildest dreams. He even got to meet the President and First Lady because he’d proven himself to be a bold and effective leader. This is his story.
Dave was born in 1961 and raised in Peabody, Massachusetts, a small city located twelve miles north of Boston. His dad was an electrical engineer and Korean War veteran, having served in the Air Force as a radar operator. His mom was an accountant for various businesses in the Boston area. Dave and his younger sister, Jodi, went through all levels of the Peabody school system, with Dave graduating from Peabody Veterans Memorial High School in May 1979.
Although Dave was a good athlete, at 135 pounds, he found greater success working after school rather than playing a sport but rarely getting into a game. A job he particularly enjoyed was working as a “lot boy” for a local Dodge dealership. On nights when it might snow, the dealership let him take a truck home from work even though he was a relatively new driver. The next morning, he would get up at 4:00 a.m., drive the truck to the dealership and plow the lot before heading off to school. He also worked at Kmart and between the two jobs, made pretty good money. So good, in fact, that after he graduated from high school, he continued to work for a year at the dealership, hauling in $12/hour, which wasn’t bad for an eighteen-year-old kid in those days.
By December 1980, Dave was bored. He had some friends who’d joined the military and wrote him from Hawaii and Japan, so he decided he needed to travel, too. He and a friend visited the local Armed Forces Recruiting Center, which had recruiters from all four services. He knew he didn’t want to be a Marine, but was otherwise open to the other services. His dad had been Air Force, but the Air Force recruiter was out for lunch, taking them off the table. Next up was the Navy recruiter, who gave Dave his full spiel. Dave was so impressed, he came back the next day and enlisted in the Navy.
The program Dave enlisted in was called the Delayed Entry Program. That meant he had to report to the Armed Forces Examining & Entrance Station, or AFEES, to begin his enlistment in February 1981. However, his report date was further delayed until June 8, 1981. When he and others with the same report date arrived, everyone was very nice to them. They were asked if they still wanted to enlist in the Navy and, after they said they did, they were sworn in as official U.S. Navy recruits. Dave then had one last opportunity to say goodbye to his parents, his grandparents, and his girlfriend, who had all come to see him off. Dave and the other Navy recruits were then transported to Boston’s Logan International Airport for the two-hour flight to Chicago and Basic Training at Naval Station Great Lakes.
The recruits arrived in Chicago around midnight and that’s when everyone stopped being nice. The Navy sailors that met the new recruits at the airport started yelling at them and never stopped. Dave, who hadn’t been yelled at before by anyone other than his parents, thought “what have I gotten myself into?”
Once at Great Lakes, each recruit was issued a blanket and told to get some sleep on the bunk beds in their assigned berthing areas. The next morning began bright and early and the yelling continued. Dave wanted to tell them to “go to hell”, but wisely held back. Others who failed to show the same restraint were separated from the group and not seen again.
The Chief Petty Officer responsible for Dave’s company of recruits was a Gunner’s Mate from the fleet who was “mean as hell.” He had a beard and Dave and the other recruits were afraid of him, but he taught them a lot about how to survive and succeed in the Navy. Years later, Dave ran across the Chief and learned he wasn’t mean at all—it was the role he played for the new recruits. Life on a ship could be unforgiving, so the new recruits had to learn to respect authority, follow orders, and function as a team. In that regard, Dave believed the Chief prepared him well.
Dave liked boot camp, except for peeling potatoes and scrubbing pots and pans. His duties and daily routine taught him discipline. Even the little things like folding clothes in the required way or making his bed gained him unexpected confidence in his abilities. He loved learning about Navy history and memorizing the plethora of acronyms the Navy uses. He also enjoyed the challenges and was appointed as an Assistant Recruit Chief Petty Officer (ARPOC), one of the Recruit Division Commander’s (RDC) primary recruit assistants, responsible for maintaining the division in good order. When the RDC assigned him an errand like getting the mail or running to pick up documents or other miscellaneous items, Dave seized the opportunity and used it to occasionally grab a cup of coffee, escape his recruit duties, and be stress free for a while.
Dave graduated from boot camp as a Seaman Recruit (E-1) in September 1981 with orders to report to the USS Sierra (AD 18), a World War II era destroyer tender commissioned in March 1944 and homeported in Charleston, South Carolina. The Sierra was essentially a floating machine shop that deployed with Navy battle groups and provided repair services for the battle group ships so they could continue their missions instead of having to return to shipyards to allow the work to be done. On one occasion, after assisting engine room personnel fix the periscope of the nuclear powered submarine USS Jacksonville, which was operating in the vicinity of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, the submarine’s skipper allowed some of the working party to get underway with the sub to make sure the sub’s systems were in order. Dave was excited and all was going well until he learned the submarine was submerged. For some reason he does not understand even now, Dave did not move from the area where he was sitting for what seemed like an eternity. Although he had offers to do so again during his career, he never took another ride on a submarine.
During a leave period in 1983 while Dave was assigned to Sierra, he drove home to visit his parents in Peabody. As he was talking to his parents and his girlfriend at his parent’s house just prior to heading back to Charleston, he heard screams outside and saw smoke. He ran through snow covered back yards to his neighbor’s house and saw a car engulfed in flames with a man still inside. Without thinking about what he was doing, he ran to the car, pulled the man out, and dragged him to safety. The flames were so hot, the man’s glasses were melted to his head and ears. Just after Dave got the man to safety, the car was engulfed by fire and exploded.
Dave’s hands were burned and he went into what he can only describe as shock. When the police and the fire department arrived, he saw someone point to him and say, “he’s the one who saved the man’s life.” After that, Dave only remembers walking back to his parent’s house while his parents were outside watching what was going on and, without saying goodbye, jumping into his car to drive back to Charleston. He stopped at a Sunoco station to get some wiper fluid and gas and suddenly found himself surrounded by State Troopers. He was taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital just outside Washington, DC, where he was admitted and treated for burns on his hands, smoke inhalation, and fragments in his eyes from when the car exploded. He was subsequently awarded the Navy Commendation medal for saving the man’s life.
Dave returned to work and deployed with USS Sierra to the Indian Ocean. He also made other shorter deployments, allowing him to tour some amazing countries in the Mediterranean. Travel like this was what he had signed up for. He detached from USS Sierra in June 1984 and reported to Cruiser-Destroyer Group TWO, a multi-ship battle group commanded by an admiral whose flagship was the aircraft carrier USS Independence (CV 62). Dave enjoyed his time on the aircraft carrier so much that he really wanted to stay in the Navy. The assignment also led to a decision that changed the direction of his Navy career.
Dave reported to his next assignment at Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island, in June 1985. Newport was an ideal location because it was close to his parents and friends in case the Navy did not work out. While at Naval Station Newport, Dave was selected for promotion to Third Class Petty Officer (E-4). He was also sent to the Naval Justice School, located on the Naval Station, to assist with a legal investigation. At the school, where Navy attorneys known as Judge Advocates or “JAGs” and Navy paralegals, known as Legalmen, trained, Dave was introduced to the Navy’s legal system. He was immediately drawn to the Legalman’s responsibilities, working military justice issues and investigations and assisting JAGs handle courts-martial and a myriad of other legal responsibilities. He completed a conversion package to apply to become a Legalman and was selected to attend the Naval Justice School in 1987. He graduated from the Legalman course in December 1987 and was promoted to Legalman Second Class (E-5).
Dave’s first assignment as a new Legalman was at the prestigious Naval War College, which was also located in Newport. There he worked in an office with two senior people – a JAG Captain (equivalent to an Army Colonel) and a civilian professor of international law – supporting their efforts as instructors of courses for senior U.S. and international Navy and Marine Corps officers. Because the military justice workload at the War College was low, Dave seized on the opportunity to observe war games and listen in on strategy discussions. The insight he gained into Navy operations served him well throughout the rest of his Navy career.
While at the Naval War College, Dave passed the exam for promotion to Petty Officer First Class (E-6) and was “frocked”, which meant he was allowed to wear his new rank but would not receive the increased pay until it came his time to officially promote. The frocking ceremony was a big deal – hundreds of people came, including his parents. And now that he wore the uniform of a Petty Officer First Class, he was entitled to the rank’s privileges, including going to the head of the line at the galley for chow and at medical for sick call. He was also assigned a reserved front row parking spot. Needless to say, promotion to First Class is a significant milestone in a Sailor’s career.
Seven months later, the Admiral commanding the War College summoned Dave to his office. The Admiral told Dave the Bureau of Naval Personnel had made a mistake and that through no fault of Dave’s, he had not been eligible to take the First Class Petty Officer exam and therefore the Bureau was taking away his eligibility for promotion. In practical terms, that meant Dave had to remove his First Class Petty Officer stripe and revert to a Petty Officer Second Class. Moreover, he would have to take the exam again, even though he had passed it before. The Admiral weighed in personally with the Bureau to prevent it from happening, but the Bureau was adamant – Dave had to revert to Second Class.
The situation angered Dave, but he was humbled by how the Admiral went to bat for him. He also got good advice from a Senior Chief Legalman (E-8) who told him he’d been through a similar situation. He told Dave the best way to deal with it was to buckle down and show everyone he deserved to be a First Class. Dave did just that. He worked hard, took the next exam and passed it, and officially promoted to Petty Officer First Class at his next duty station in March 1991.
Dave detached from the Naval War College in March 1990 and reported in April to the legal office onboard the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV 60), which was homeported in Mayport, Florida. Just four months later, he was underway with the ship on a wartime deployment to the Red Sea in support of Operation Desert Storm after Iraq invaded Kuwait. The ship’s squadrons delivered tons of ordnance to targets in Iraq and Kuwait but lost three aircraft in the process. Before participating in Desert Storm, the ship also lost 21 enlisted sailors just three days before Christmas when a liberty boat returning crewmembers to the ship capsized in rough seas in the port of Haifa, Israel. Dave still commemorates the loss of his shipmates every year on the anniversary of the accident.
One high point of Dave’s tour on Saratoga was talking to then-Captain Joseph S. Mobley, the captain of the ship. Because Dave put together the disciplinary cases to be adjudicated by Captain Mobley, he got the chance to interact with him regularly on the bridge, something most enlisted sailors on board would never get to do. What made this particularly interesting was Captain Mobley had flown combat missions as a bombardier-navigator on A6A Intruders during the Vietnam War, was shot down in 1968, and was held as a prisoner of war until his release on March 14, 1973. Anytime Dave felt like he was having a bad day, he thought of what Captain Mobley had gone through at the hands of the North Vietnamese and suddenly his troubles didn’t seem so bad after all. One other high point of the tour was Dave earned his Enlisted Aviation Warfare pin, which meant he had demonstrated sufficient knowledge and skills with naval aviation operations to wear the insignia. Earning a warfare pin was essential to Dave’s career and continued advancement.
After returning to Saratoga’s homeport in Mayport, Dave transferred to the Navy Legal Service Office in Mayport in August 1992. There he assisted JAGs prosecute and defend courts-martial and helped provide legal assistance to Sailors assigned to the many ships and helicopter squadrons calling Mayport home. Just seven months later, he was selected to report to the Admiral commanding the multi-ship USS George Washington (CVN 73) Battle Group. Dave was a member of the Admiral’s staff and worked directly for the Battle Group JAG, who was the attorney responsible for advising the Admiral on international law, the law relating to naval operations, the rules of engagement for the use of military force, and military justice issues. The JAGs Dave worked for, then-Lieutenant Commander Gregg Cervi and Lieutenant Commander George Reilly, treated Dave as a teammate and gave him work to do that had historically been reserved for JAGs. Dave loved the work and excelled. He was able to assist and observe the JAGs briefing the Battle Group on the rules of engagement, as well as provide direct support on investigations and special events.
The most memorable event occurred during the Battle Group’s deployment in 1994, when the USS George Washington participated in the 50th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day landing at Normandy. Numerous dignitaries visited the ship, including President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton, the Vice President, and the Secretary of Defense. One late afternoon when the President was on board, a Marine came down the passageway telling everyone to clear the way for the President’s party. Dave and a group of other sailors were in their office and stood with the door open to watch the President walk by. As the party approached, Dave got up his nerve and asked White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers if they could get a picture with the President. Ms. Myers said no because they were on their way to dinner, but First Lady Hillary Clinton heard Dave’s request and said it was a great idea. The result was everyone in the office had their picture taken with the President and First Lady.
After the dignitaries left, the Admiral held an award ceremony recognizing all of the work everyone had done in helping coordinate the visits by the many dignitaries. He was all smiles until he called out Dave’s name. Dave, recalling the last time an Admiral looked somber and gave him bad news, feared he was about to be chewed out for asking the President’s party for pictures. Instead, the Admiral praised him for all he had done and said his action to get his shipmates a picture with the President and Mrs. Clinton epitomized what it means to be a Navy leader.
Dave’s efforts coordinating with the Secret Service and the White House Communications staff earned him the trust of the Admiral and the Battle Group JAG, and a plum temporary assignment in New York City after the Battle Group returned to Norfolk in November 1994. Each year in the spring, New York City opens its doors to the Navy during Fleet Week, when ships and Sailors visit the City to promote the Navy and its mission. In early 1995, Dave was sent to New York City as the Officer-in-Charge of an advanced party, arranging things like transportation and catering and planning for a wide range of events. He worked closely with the Mayor’s personal assistant during his entire time in New York. During one such event, Dave was wearing his summer white uniform sitting on a couch at the Mayor’s mansion talking to people when actor Kevin Kline dropped a Swedish meatball that landed on Dave’s uniform. The Mayor’s personal assistant quickly ushered Dave into a bedroom and told him to take off his uniform so it could be cleaned. While Dave was sitting on the bed in his skivvies waiting for his uniform, the Mayor and his wife walked in and wanted to know what was going on. Dave and the Mayor’s personal assistant explained the situation and a few minutes later, his uniform re-appeared, cleaned and pressed and inspection ready. Then it was back to the event as if the incident had never happened.
In addition to earning his Enlisted Surface Warfare pin while on board George Washington, Dave earned many accolades for his Battle Group tour, including Battle Group Sailor of the Year and the Navy Judge Advocate (the three-star JAG Admiral responsible for the Navy JAG Corps and all Legalmen) Sailor of the Quarter. But by January 1996, it was time to move on to Dave’s next assignment at the Trial Service Office in Mayport, Florida, where he helped Navy JAGs prosecute courts-martial and assisted Navy commands with their military justice needs. During this tour, Dave was selected for Chief Petty Officer (E-7), the most prestigious promotion for an enlisted sailor during the course of a Navy career.
At the Trial Service Office, Dave learned about leadership and taking care of sailors firsthand, and was selected as a Command Chief. He also attended a Heisman Trophy event at the Sawgrass Country Club in nearby Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, where he received a football autographed by numerous Heisman Trophy winners. While there, he met and spoke with legendary Yankees player and coach Yogi Berra, who added his autograph to the football despite learning Dave was a die-hard Red Sox fan.
Dave transferred to the legal office at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in September 2000. He was selected for promotion to Senior Chief Petty Officer (E-8), the second highest enlisted rank in the Navy, in September 2002. He then transferred to the Region Legal Service Office, Yokosuka, located on a U.S. Navy base about thirty miles south of Tokyo. The Region Legal Service Office prosecuted courts-martial and advised the forward deployed ships and squadrons of the U.S. Seventh Fleet on a broad range of legal matters. In addition to supporting those efforts and assisting his Commanding Officer, and as the senior Legalman in the Western Pacific, Dave traveled to wherever Legalmen were assigned – Guam, Hawaii, Thailand, the Philippines, and other bases in Japan – to ensure they had the support they needed to serve the legal needs of their commands. Dave’s area of responsibility included 45 regional Legalmen. During the visits, he listened to his sailors’ issues, helped address their requirements, and mentored them professionally.
On one such trip when he was traveling to Sasebo, Japan, with his commanding officer, the commercial jet they were flying in started zooming down the runway to take off when it struck a flock of birds. Dave heard a BAM and the plane skidded to a stop at the end of the runway. When he and the other passengers evacuated the aircraft, they saw the plane’s nose and front wheel hanging over the break wall at the end of the runway. Had the jet gone just a few more feet, it would have plunged into the water. Once inside the airport, Dave and his boss downed a few drinks and discussed their close call. Seven hours later, the same plane – now with a new engine – was back at the gate and ready to board. Had it not been for the drinks, Dave wasn’t sure he would have boarded the plane.
In April 2005, Dave was selected for Master Chief Petty Officer (E-9), the Navy’s highest enlisted rank. One month later, he left Japan and headed for Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, the largest Navy base in the world. There he was assigned to a detachment of the Naval Justice School, but he actually served as the Command Master Chief for the entire Naval Justice School. This meant he had to travel routinely to the Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island, to work on programs designed to improve the proficiency and versatility of Legalmen. One of the initiatives he is most proud of his contributions to involved Legalmen training at the Naval Justice School and enrolling concurrently at Roger Williams University to earn an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. Dave also taught at career development courses for senior enlisted leaders in Norfolk and around the fleet, focusing on leadership, good order and discipline, and taking care of the legal needs of sailors. He attained his Master Training Specialist certification during this tour.
In May of 2008, Dave transferred one last time to serve as the Command Master Chief for Region Legal Service Office, Norfolk, the largest legal office in the Navy. He served as a trusted advisor to the commanding officer and provided leadership and mentoring for the command’s and the region’s ninety plus enlisted sailors. Dave retired from the Navy out of this position in June 2011, capping off a stellar thirty-year Navy career.
Dave has continued to serve the Navy as the civilian legal officer for the Navy Computer and Telecommunications Master Station in Norfolk, Virginia. His position allows him to stay in touch with the people he served with over his long career, as many of his best friends have similarly continued their association with the Navy after retiring.
With his travel significantly reduced since leaving active duty, Dave spends his free time enjoying life with his wife, Charlena, his three children, and his grandson. Although he’s battled some serious health challenges, he’s not let them slow him down or curb his enthusiasm. When he meets young people looking for adventure, travel, a way to pay for education, or just trying to find direction and discipline in their lives, he tells them to give the Navy a try and promises they won’t be disappointed. He adds with a smile, if he can make it, anyone can.
Voices to Veterans is proud to salute Master Chief Legalman David S. Leafer, U.S. Navy (Retired), for his many years of outstanding service to our nation, including during a wartime deployment on board USS Saratoga in Operation Desert Storm. Throughout his career, he not only provided outstanding legal services to sailors and the many commands he served in the fleet, but he also led and mentored countless Legalmen to help them be successful. For all he has done, we wish him fair winds and following seas.