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Navy captain kept Gulf War ships sailing – and much more

Eight years into his career with the Navy, Robert B. Bailey was on his way to help fight a war that did not surprise him in the volatile Middle East.

"We didn't have terrorism like we know it today, but the world had dictators, and the United Nations and the rest of the world were sick of seeing these dictators killing people," Bailey said of one of them – Saddam Hussein.

At the time, he was a chief petty officer aboard the USS Tarawa, an amphibious assault craft carrying some 1,800 sailors and Marines, plus fighting equipment.

"This was one of the largest groups of naval ships ever assembled for an assault," Bailey said of the 1990 war.

But from his vantage point, he did not have the chance to view the massive buildup to the war and then its swift prosecution in early 1991. Bailey worked below deck overseeing the boilers, which supplied the propulsion to power the ship, which hit 21 knots at full tilt.

"The Tarawa was an old ship, and we always had challenges, either mechanical or electrical," he said.

And while his job might seem far less dramatic than, say, operating a high-tech weapons system, Bailey knew that his work and that of his crew was necessary. Put simply, the Navy's ships go nowhere without the expertise of the engineers below deck.

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Robert B. Bailey, 56
Hometown: Town of Tonawanda
Residence: San Diego
Branch: Navy
Rank: captain
War zone: First Gulf War
Years of service: 1982 – present
Most prominent honors: Kuwait Liberation Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Humanitarian Service Medal
Specialty: engineering

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He was the right man for the job.

After graduating from Kenmore East High School in 1980, he worked at a machine shop for two years before deciding on a career in the Navy. Because of his mechanical abilities, he was trained in diesel engines and boiler operations and maintenance.

His abilities have not only helped propel ships, but have also pushed him up the ranks.

"I started off as an E-1 undesignated sailor, the lowest possible rank you can have in the Navy, and eventually achieved the rank of chief petty officer," he said of his accomplishments.

But ambition pushed him to make even more of himself, and he broke through the barrier to become a naval officer.

Capt. Robert B. Bailey will need special permission to remain past his 60th birthday and reach four decades of service with the Navy. (Contributor photo)

"I'm what you call a mustang. I had no college and was selected through my performance and technical ability," he said of why the Navy promoted him to the rank of ensign in 1996. His success continued – lieutenant, lieutenant commander, commander and, most recently, captain. Or, as Bailey likes to proudly say: "Captain in the United States Navy."

But his achievements weren't all his own doing.

"I had a lot of people mentoring me and working for me. It was basically a team effort to put me where I'm at now."

He also earned a bachelor's degree in management at Excelsior College and began teaching engineering theory and ship-wide engineering assessment to sailors in the Navy's Pacific Fleet. His duties were further expanded to oversee the curriculum for 89 engineering courses, making sure information was current and correctly taught.

Amid all this responsibility and advancement, Bailey was busy on the home front as well. He is married to the former Monica Olya of Columbia, a forensic financial analyst, and they have two daughters: Dylan, 21, and Devin, 15.

At the San Diego Naval Station, he serves as the officer in charge of maintenance and logistics for 14 amphibious warships.

But Buffalo and his family here remain close to his heart. He says he gets home regularly to visit his mother, Carmen Bailey, and his brothers, Ron and Shawn.

You may recognize Ron Bailey's name. He's a Buffalo artist known for his portraits of famous athletes and rock 'n' roll stars. Shawn Bailey, the captain adds, makes his living specializing in framing sports jerseys and other athletic memorabilia.

And speaking of careers, Bailey says it is his dream to serve five more years in the Navy. That would give him four decades of military service, but, he adds, he would need special permission to serve a year past his 60 birthday to achieve that 40 years.

And why is it important for him to hit that milestone?

"Because the Navy is all I know, and I love serving."

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