Lt. Tom Muenster may be retired in his role as an officer in the United States Navy, but he recently played an important role of service to that branch of the military and he shared his experiences with Monday’s Veterans Day gathering in Vermillion.
A capacity crowd filled the Vermillion High School gymnasium for the program which featured music from the Vermillion High School Band, a vocal selection my Mitchell Olson who was accompanied by the Vermillion High School Concert Choir, and performances by students from St. Agnes School.
The morning’s program also included the reading of winning essays written by Jolley Elementary fifth graders Dedrick Kinsey and Jenna Peterson and video produced by Vermillion seventh graders followed by a reading by Sahira Abraham, a VMS seventh grader, and a vocal performance by Austin Elementary students.
Muenster, the keynote speaker at Monday’s program, was born in Vermillion and is a graduate of Sioux Falls Washington High School. He earned his undergraduate degree in civil engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology and a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of South Dakota.
Muenster enlisted in the Navy Seabees in 1990 and later earned a commission through the ROTC program. He qualified as a Surface Warfare Officer aboard USS Hewitt (DD966), a Spruance-class destroyer based in Yokosuka, Japan. He also served as CRUDES Maintenance Officer at Southwest Regional Maintenance Center in San Diego.
In 2015, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard appointed Tom as a founding member of the USS South Dakota (SSN 790) Commissioning Committee. Tom is self-employed as an asset administrator and specializes in private wealth management. Today, he and his wife, Rachel, live not far from Vermillion in Burbank.
In 2015, then Gov. Dennis Daugaard appointed Muenster as the founding member of the U.S.S. South Dakota (SSN 790) Commissioning Committee.
The U.S.S. South Dakota is one of the United States’ military’s newest submarines. It is the third vessel to take the state’s name.
“The U.S.S. South Dakota is an active warship in the U.S. Navy’s fleet today,” he said.
In addition to BB-57 — a South Dakota-class battleship which served during World War II — a Pennsylvania-class armored cruiser was designated USS South Dakota (ACR-9) and served the fleet from 1908-1929, finishing her career as the USS Huron (CA-9) after being renamed in 1920.
This renaming was done as the USS South Dakota name was to be applied to a new ship (BB-49) which was to be the lead battleship in her class; however, this class was canceled due to the implementation of the Washington Naval Treaty.
Much of his talk focused on the veterans who joined him in serving on the submarine’s commissioning committee.
“It all got started on June 23, 2012 when Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus came to Sioux Falls and at the Battleship Memorial announced that South Dakota would receive the naming honor of the 17th ship of the Virginia class of attack submarines,” Muenster said. “Lieutenant Governor Matt Michels was there to accept this honor on behalf of the state of South Dakota.”
The commissioning committee, he said, was tasked with funding and organizing all activities related to the commission of the new submarine.
“The goal was to build relationships between the submarine and the people of South Dakota,” Muenster said. “There are three key milestone events for any ship in the commissioning process. One is the keel laying. That’s the ceremonial start or the building of that particular vessel when keel would be laid.”
The next event, he said, is the vessel’s christening, usually accomplished by smashing a bottle of sparkling wine or champagne on the ship and it officially “becomes its namesake.
“That’s when it (the submarine) became known as the South Dakota,” Muenster said. “And the finally, the culmination of all of that results in its commissioning. That’s when the crew and that vessel are fully mission capable and ready to go to war.”`
The USS South Dakota Commissioning Committee included 20 members, 11 of which, like Muenster, are veterans. Besides Muenster, committee members include BG Jeff Marlette, Captain Deb Bodenstedt, Col. Steve Harding, CDR Ron Hill, CDR Wiley Cress, STCS (SS) Brian Brummet, Jeff Alvey (Navy), Rick Tupper (Navy) and Robert Hovey (Navy).
“Together as veterans, we knew we had some challenges facing this commissioning,” he said. “South Dakota is a small state – there have been 17 other states that had namesake vessels that were commissioned and they were big states – Illinois, Virginia, Texas, Minnesota, Colorado. There was a high bar; all of those states had tremendous commissioning efforts and showed those sailors that they are proud of their namesakes.”
Muenster said another challenge is South Dakota’s distance from any ocean.
“Here in South Dakota, we have a great Army presence, we have a great Air Force presence, but Navy guys are few and far between here in South Dakota sometimes,” he said.
Great opportunities were identified, however, including Battleship South Dakota, one of the greatest ships in U.S. Naval history.
“She earned 13 battle stars during World War II,” Muenster said. “Another opportunity we had is South Dakotans are very pro-military. We have an amazing number of veterans here who have served. We also have family members who know that they have veterans who have served … South Dakotans serve in some of the highest rates per capita of any state in the nation. We have an incredible record of service.”
The commission, he said, was fortunate to have the full support of the entire state, including strong backing from Gov. Dennis Daugaard and Lt. Gov. Matt Michels.
The commission had several objectives:
• Introduce the crew of the USS South Dakota to the people of South Dakota
• Promote South Dakota and celebrate the state’s heritage, industries and its people
• Ensure the USS South Dakota has a great commissioning and provide support to crew members to give them the best possible start in the Navy’s submarine fleet
The committee developed several initiatives to follow:
• The christening of the submarine with a South Dakota sparkling wine
• The development of a USS South Dakota Commemorative 1911 pistol
• Including an artistic image of the USS South Dakota in the Mitchell Corn Palace’s exterior art that had a “Salute to Military” theme.
• The creation of a USS South Dakota helmet decal program that included special decals that were placed on the football helmets of the SDSU Jackrabbits and the USD Coyotes teams
• The creation of a USS South Dakota 2018 Harley Davidson motorcycle
Muenster also shared a humorous anecdote of the head chef aboard the new submarine who commented that it would be great to see the new submarine launched into the Missouri River of South Dakota instead of the Thames River of Connecticut, where the vessel was built.
The new sub could never float in the Missouri River, but it could experience Missouri River water, he said.
“We did find a way to bring the Missouri River to Connecticut,” Muenster said. “We collected water from the Missouri River right here in Clay County … and we took those bottles of Missouri River water and we shipped them out to Connecticut.”
On Feb.2, 2018, Senior Chief Chris Peddycoart and Petty Officer Phil Alvey, both South Dakota natives, used that Missouri River water from Clay County to christen the U.S.S. South Dakota for a second time,” he said.
“The very first water to ever touch the hull of the U.S.S. South Dakota came from Clay County and our Missouri River,” Muenster said.
South Dakota veterans, he said, accepted the challenge to make a great commissioning for the state’s new namesake vessel. The new nuclear submarine was put through a set of arduous sea trials before being commissioned.
“I’m pleased to report that the sailors and the submarine performed very, very well. In fact, they had the highest score in the history of the United States Navy,” Muenster said, who added that he’s proud to be one of many veterans who helped to launch the U.S.S. South Dakota.
“Veterans have made a difference by serving our country and they continue to make a difference by volunteering in their communities,” he said. “We have some great veterans’ groups right here in Clay County … and to all the veterans who are here today, I say ‘thank you for your service and thank you for allowing me to be here with you today.’”A New