The standard picture of a military leader is the person leading the charge, directing the battlefield, commanding the ship, and making the decisions. A leader is ever-present and sets the tone for his or her unit. But a leader doesn’t have to be at that unit to have an impact.
Throughout his military career, first as an enlisted aviator in the Navy and later as a Coast Guard judge advocate, retired Lt. Cmdr. Anthony R. Owens always strived for the best. If it was worth doing, it was worth giving his all.
He’s the hardest worker in the office, always willing to take time – as much as it takes – to help a shipmate learn from and deal with any problems they might face. When the Pacific Area legal office was prosecuting its first general court martial in over a year, Owens was still in the office with his team at 2 a.m. prepping for closing arguments. He helped them prepare for the final day in court and, despite the late hour, was unwilling to let them settle for anything less than their best.
Every day he lives life to the fullest and pushes others to do the same. His passions include martial arts, baseball, creating amazing art, the Coast Guard, and above all his immediate family: Sherri, his wife and Samantha, his daughter. He is always looking for ways to make others feel valued, including his subordinates and peers.
Two years ago, he seemed to have things just how he wanted them. He was working a job he had long wanted – the deputy staff judge advocate of Pacific Area. He was in the San Francisco Bay area – the location he had tried to get to for several years. His family was adjusting to their new surroundings, he was quickly molding a high-performing team in the office, and his beloved San Francisco Giants had just won the World Series. For a moment he felt like things were really coming together, but that feeling didn’t last.
During winter 2010, Owens went to a doctor after experiencing tingling and occasional numbness. He was diagnosed with ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a chronic, progressive disease marked by gradual degeneration of the nerve cells in the central nervous system that control voluntary muscle movement. The disorder causes muscle weakness and atrophy and is usually fatal.
For many, the diagnosis would have been devastating. But while the changes he’s had to make in the past two years have surely been difficult, Owens maintains the character and tenacity that make him who he is: happy, helpful, hardworking.
Those who knew and worked with Owens were introduced to a motto: “Embrace the suck.” It’s not the type of phrase you typically expect to hear; but it works. “Embrace the suck” means to take a task or situation that is just plain no good and make the most of it. You might be encouraged to embrace that grinding project that seems never ending or look for ways to excel on the small job no one wants. Owens even had patches created with the saying so that he could hand them out to deserving shipmates.
Over the past two years, Owens has been determined to embrace the suck of ALS.
How does he do that? Good question. He leads. He reaches out. He finds ways to connect. Owens may now need a wheel chair to get around, but his drive and dedication to others has not waned. His optimistic outlook in the shadow of a disease with no known cure has become an inspiration to others.
While Owens’ shipmates now talk to him on the phone or go to his house rather than stepping into his office, the selfless leader and tireless mentor is still there to guide them in their daily tasks and in their careers. Through the way he handles the challenges of his everyday life, he continues to teach new lessons in humility, hard work and perseverance. Owens embraces the suck of ALS, and we embrace the suck of not having him in the office.
We’ve also realized that “shipmate” means more than a co-worker, peer, or friend. A shipmate is someone who you can trust and rely on; someone who you can both teach and learn from. Most of all a shipmate is someone who stays with you always.