Leader in the Spotlight: LCDR Chris Tighe, USN (Ret.)

Just over a decade ago, I was in my command tour at Navy Information Operations Command (NIOC) San Diego.

Not long after arriving, a young reserve officer named, LT Chris Tighe, requested to see me. I learned that he was a reserve Cryptologic officer, who was hoping to come back on active duty. He had been an enlisted Chinese linguist, who had earned his aircrew designation while flying hundreds of hours on reconnaissance missions throughout the western Pacific. After leaving active duty, Chris pursued his bachelor’s degree while serving as a police officer in Hawaii.

His father, Bob, was a Senior Chief Petty Officer who instilled a deep sense of service, and drive in Chris and his brothers. After affiliating with the Navy Reserves Chris had a desire to lead and excel, so he lobbied hard for a commission as an officer. He had to overcome many hurdles and nay sayers who said he should give up, but Chris eventually prevailed and earned his commission. My initial impression of him was that he might have been a better fit for the Marine Corps. He had a sharp, short haircut, a strong physical build and an internal strength that projected pure confidence. When we met, he was preparing to leave for a one-year Individual Augmentation (IA) reserve assignment to Afghanistan. He was hoping to get assigned to my command in San Diego upon his return. I was impressed with his demeanor, background, and motivation. So, I said, I would see what I could do. While in Afghanistan, Chris served initially with Army Green Berets and later with Marine Corps Special Forces. Chris demonstrated his ability to excel in the combat environment. Along the way, he earned his Fleet Marine Force Officer pin. This is a badge that is held in high esteem among warfighters and earned by very few “intelligence” types. While he was serving on the front lines, I worked with the detailer to try to get him assigned to my command upon his return.

The months passed and before we knew it, Chris was preparing to return home. A few days before his departure from Afghanistan, we received the welcome news that the Navy had granted me an active duty billet that would allow Chris to transition to my command when he came back. After a couple of weeks of leave and spending time with his family, Chris arrived for his first day of work and stopped in to see me. He resembled the Marine Corps Special Forces he had recently been serving with even more than he had before he left! He was ecstatic to be there and motivated to get to work. I was incredibly pleased to have him onboard. Chris was assigned to a deploying billet, so after a short respite and getting up to speed on the operations he would be supporting, Chris deployed aboard the aircraft carrier USS CARL VINSON. As expected, he excelled there too. After his stint in Afghanistan and this deployment, Chris was considered an experienced Information Warfare Officer (IWO). About that time, an emergent “hot fill” requirement for a Cryptologic Division Officer on the USS BLUE RIDGE, the Seventh Fleet flagship, popped up. The requirement was for an experienced IWO to serve on the Admiral’s staff. Right away, I thought of Chris. I hated to send him right back out again, but I knew that he would do an outstanding job and learn key items that would serve him well as his career progressed. So, once again, Chris flew to Yokosuka, Japan to meet the ship.

Chris excelled at sea and on the Admiral’s staff. When his wife, Linda, who was also serving in the Navy Reserves was re-enlisting, I arranged for her to come into the command so Chris could serve as her re-enlisting officer via video tele-conference (VTC). That was the first time I also met his Mom, Joanne, who was a government employee with the Navy. A few years later, I would have the pleasure of serving with Joanne, when I was the Executive Officer at SPAWAR System Center Pacific. Time passed. After what seemed like weeks, but was really months, Chris came home. He had been heavily deployed the last couple of years. I knew he was looking forward to settling into a routine and spending more time at home with his family.

One day my Executive Officer came to my office. He had just fielded a phone call from an un-named agency who inquired if we could support a very high-level dignitary who was going to be vacationing locally during the holiday season. The VIP would need an office to operate out of, access to his normal highly classified message traffic, a secure facility that could support his requirements and a dedicated “Aide” to assist with his emergent needs. I said we could fully support all these requests. It took a few days for them to get back to us, but it turned out to be the State Department who was calling. The VIP they were referring to was U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman. Ambassador Huntsman was going to be vacationing at the Hotel Del Coronado here in San Diego and it turned out that we were the nearest facility which could provide all the support he required. At the time, Ambassador Huntsman had previously been the Governor of Utah, the U.S. Ambassador to Singapore and he was, at the time, serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing. The State Department official said it was especially important to the Ambassador that he be able to keep a low profile. He preferred that no one outside of my command know that he would be working at my facility. I reminded him that we work in the top-secret world and were used to keeping secrets. By the same token, I told him I had to brief my chain of command. Other than that, we would do our absolute best to preserve the Ambassador’s anonymity. The official assured me that the Ambassador would appreciate that, and we set about making the final arrangements.

A couple of weeks ahead of his arrival, we tested the communications circuits to ensure we could receive the message traffic the ambassador required. Everything was in place and went smoothly. The only thing left for me to do was to designate an Aide who could support the Ambassador during his four to six week-long tenure. The candidate had to be extremely professional. I could put most of team in this category. Still, the person who kept coming to mind was Chris. He was the epitome of professionalism. He looked like an Aide. He had a strong operational background. He was articulate and intelligent, and I knew he could physically defend the Ambassador if the situation arose. I knew from his biography that the Ambassador was fluent in Chinese. He had learned to speak Mandarin when he served as a missionary in Taiwan after high school. This sealed the deal. Chris was fluent in Mandarin. This would be another operational requirement soon after returning from deployment, but I knew Chris was the officer for the job. I also knew that he would benefit immensely from the opportunity to have such close contact with a sitting United States Ambassador. So, I called Chris and bounced the idea off him. True to his nature, Chris jumped at the chance to serve.

After a couple of weeks, I received a call from my State Department point of contact, informing me that Ambassador Huntsman and his family had arrived at the Hotel Del Coronado. I passed him Chris’ biography and direct contact information and I told him that the Ambassador could contact Chris when he was ready to visit the office. A day or two later, Chris received a call from the Ambassador and drove over to pick him up in the command sedan. We were standing by when they arrived at the command. I introduced the Ambassador to my command team, then I took him on a quick tour of the command before we adjourned to my office for coffee. He was very gracious, and we exchanged stories about our families before he retired to the VIP office we set up for him. He stayed several hours catching up on his work before he asked Chris to take him back to the Hotel Del. He repeated this routine daily while he was with us.

After several weeks, the Ambassador brought his sons, Jon III and William, to the command to show them around. He introduced them to me and said they were both extremely interested in attending the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA). Neither Chris nor I are graduates of the Naval Academy, so I suggested that I have one of my other junior officers who was an Academy grad come down and share his experiences with the boys. LT Charles Ellis was a Navy pilot and a graduate of the USNA. Chuck came right over and spent an hour with the boys offering his insights about the Naval Academy and the Navy to them. The following year, Jon III graduated from the New Mexico Military Institute (NMMI) and followed on to the USNA. He graduated in 2014 and was commissioned a pilot. He now flies F18’s in the Navy. Will played rugby and football at the USNA. He graduated in 2016 and received a commission as a SEAL after attending Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUDS).

At the request of the Ambassador, I arranged for him and his family to tour a local aircraft carrier and attend a Chargers football game, which Chris and others on my team helped transport them to. As his vacation was coming to an end, Ambassador Huntsman offered to provide a classified update to my team on U.S. – China relations. I was extremely appreciative and keen for the opportunity to get an inside view on U.S. – China relations directly from the sitting U.S. Ambassador to China. This was unheard of and spoke to Ambassador Huntsman’s graciousness. He and his family joined us again the next year and provided another follow-on update to U.S. – China relations when it came time for him to depart. Ambassador Huntsman went on to run for President of the United States and to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Russia. His visit was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I remain honored and humbled to have had the opportunity to host him and get to know him in person.

During his entire stay, Chris was at the Ambassador’s beck and call. He took incredibly good care of the Ambassador, transporting him to and from the hotel and helping him with all his administrative needs and protocol matters. I was not surprised. I had put my full trust and confidence in Chris, and I knew he would ensure that the Ambassador and his family were well taken care of. I knew he would provide the highest level of professionalism and service. Upon his departure, Ambassador Huntsman praised Chris for his assistance throughout his visit. Within a few months, I transferred to SPAWAR and did not see the Ambassador again. I became good friends with Chris’ mother, Joanne, while serving at SPAWAR and still keep in touch with her and Chris. Chris went on to serve with the SEALs at Special Warfare Unit Three in Bahrain. He then did a stint with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) owing to his background and experience as a police officer. He later earned a Master’s degree in Global Leadership and eventually retired from active duty service in 2017. I was honored to speak at Chris’ retirement ceremony. His Mother, Joanne, was there to cheer him on, but his Dad, Bob, had since passed on. I know Bob would have been extremely proud of Chris for his service to our country and all of his accomplishments.

Chris, his wife, Linda, and their two boys now live in Seattle. His motivation has not waned. They started their own property and construction management company and are enjoying great success. Chris recently visited San Diego and we got together for lunch. We caught up on old times, and traded sea stories like the time we hosted Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. He has my admiration. I encourage you to reach out to him on LinkedIn and read some of the articles he has posted about his other Navy experiences and business ventures.

By CAPT Bryan Lopez (Ret.)