Engineering alumnus Rear Adm. Jeff Jablon teaches, mentors on land and sea
Jeff Jablon is commander of the U.S. Pacific submarine fleet, a role that daily puts him at the helm of an organization of more than 12,000 people. His charge also includes oversight of military personnel, civilians, and contractors.
This was not always the outcome he saw for his career. Jablon came to Virginia Tech in 1982, entering the Department of Mechanical Engineering as an undergraduate. He liked the broad scope of study available within that major and thought he might be able to apply that set of strong core skills to a job within industry.
As part of that plan, Jablon enrolled in Tech’s co-op program, which allowed him to spend time as an engineer in a factory while still enrolled as a student. Even though the work was applicable to his education, he found that he wasn’t a fan of sitting in a cubicle every day. Unsure of the direction his future in engineering would take, he continued working toward his degree.
“At that time in my life, I didn’t have any interest in joining the military,” said Jablon. “I wanted to get some experience in industry, so I participated in the co-op program. From the time I started at Virginia Tech, I kept getting flyers in the mail for the Navy’s Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate (NUPOC) program. I would just throw them in the trash.”
During his senior year, Jablon took a couple of job interviews, and was even offered a job, but still debated what to do after graduation. He remembered the NUPOC flyers, knew he didn’t want to sit in a cubicle, and finally decided to check out the program.
“I looked at NUPOC, and I thought it looked exciting. Nuclear-powered propulsion and the adventure of the Navy really appealed to me. I was looking to do it for five years and then get out,” said Jablon. “I went down to Charleston and toured a couple [of] submarines, then went to Naval Reactors in D.C. and I was accepted into the program in January of my senior year.”
Jablon began his Navy journey by attending Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. After the four-month program, he was commissioned as an officer in the Navy. He next completed a six-month program at Nuclear Power School, and then spent six months working on a land-based nuclear reactor to get hands-on experience with nuclear propulsion. Submarine school came next, a regimen of three months preparing him for the next step in his career: assignment to his first submarine.
“It wasn’t a big stretch to go from what I was learning in my undergraduate degree to nuclear power,” Jablon said. “One of the things that I developed over my time at Virginia Tech was learning how to approach problems and how to think like an engineer. We use the same approach of how to look at problems, break them down, frame them properly, and move out with execution — that engineering mindset — in the Navy. Especially in the Navy nuclear power program, and as a submariner.”
Jablon’s first operational assignment was to the nuclear-powered submarine USS L. Mendel Rivers as a junior officer in 1989, serving a three-year sea tour and contributing to a crew that conducted operations around the world. During his time on the sub, his experiences were some of the most exciting things he had ever done, he said, and he experienced a climate of mentorship that inspired him to change his original “five years and out” plan. He would remain in the Navy and help others follow the same path.
After serving on the Rivers, he had his choice of several shore assignments that would give him the chance to train others. His pick was an assignment to the University of Virginia, where he would teach in the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) program as an assistant professor of naval science.
The academic world was a good fit. Jablon’s mother had been a middle school art teacher and his father was a college professor, so educating was part of his life. Teaching and training were things that he enjoyed doing, and the time he spent being mentored as a junior submarine officer had strengthened that appeal.
A career path to command
Jablon’s assignment at UVA ended after three years, and he turned his focus to the sea tours that would allow him to advance through the naval ranks. To complete that path, the Navy has a cadence of alternating assignments between shore tours on land and sea tours on vessels. The shore tours gave Jablon the opportunity to work in a wide range of positions, including one as a submarine strategist at United States Special Operations Command, a joint command that integrates all branches of the armed forces.
Jablon’s path eventually led him to become the commanding officer of the nuclear-powered fast-attack sub USS Philadelphia in November 2005. Command at sea had been his objective, and this assignment was the realization of that quest. Even as a commander, mentoring remained at the heart of Jablon’s core values. Having benefited from hands-on training himself, he wanted to put that practice to work among those he found himself leading. Aboard the Philadelphia, he reinforced the importance of communication and clarity of expectations throughout all ranks.
When his sea tour as commanding officer was complete, he jumped at the opportunity to take a new position within the Navy as a prospective commanding officer instructor. This put him in a teaching environment for all officers who were on track to become executive officers and commanding officers on submarines. His regimen included teaching two classes on the East Coast and two in Hawaii each year, but his instruction wasn’t relegated to the classroom. After a month of school-based coursework, the officers would spend more than three weeks at sea in operational missions aboard fast-attack submarines like the Philadelphia.
Bringing up new leaders became Jablon’s mantra. Subsequent assignments would put him in charge of groups of submarines, and ultimately put him in a position of oversight of the entire U.S. submarine fleet for the Pacific. Having trained the officers who now serve under him, he sees many familiar faces in the course of his duties.
“At one point in time, every commanding officer and executive officer in the submarine force had gone through my training,” Jablon said. “I’m very familiar with those individuals who are now captains in the Navy because they were my students at one time.”
A testament in coins
Every branch of the military shares a tradition involving challenge coins. These oversized custom coins, roughly 2 inches in diameter, carry the logos of their unit and are exchanged between members of the group as a sign of their camaraderie. Commanding officers may also carry coins to give to others outside their organization, bestowing a kind of honorary membership and establishing a bond of respect.
Military executives often display these coins on racks in their offices. Spending a significant amount of time in the military equates to a sizable collection of coins, and extra racks are added to accommodate.
In his office, Jablon has a conference table covered with coins. These shiny tokens adorn the entire surface, protected by a sheet of glass. It is an uncommonly large collection, and is a testament to the connections Jablon has formed throughout his career. In his estimation, there are well over 200 coins on the table.
“I got the majority of them when I was an instructor and I rode submarines,” said Jablon. “The commanding officer would present me with one. In my jobs as a submarine group and squadron commander, I interacted with a lot of foreign officers who also have their own coins and received a lot of coins that way.”
Looking back on his legacy, Jablon sees the impact he has made on others as central to what he has achieved. When he was appointed as commanding officer of the Philadelphia, he was taking the helm after a turbulent period in the vessel’s life. The sub had just been involved in a collision with a Turkish vessel, resulting in only minor injuries but still leaving the crew feeling somewhat defeated. Jablon worked with a group of new officers and chief petty officers to rally the crew and improve communications throughout the vessel. In later positions, he maintained the same approach. While the fundamental mission of the military is preparing for national defense, Jablon’s other top priority is taking care of those under his command.
“In my current job, my priorities are warfighting, people, and safety,” said Jablon. “My primary goal is to make a positive difference in the force and make an improvement in those three areas. If I have a legacy, that’s what I’d like to achieve.”