Monmouth County Ties to SSN-796

ATL. HIGHLANDS - Residents of Atlantic Highlands, Middletown and Ocean Township can take an extra serving of pride in the soon to be christened submarine, the SSN 796 New Jersey. All three communities have been home to a Navy chief on the fast-attack submarine that will be commissioned in late 2022 or early 2023.

Chief Stephen Newton is a native of the Navesink area of Middletown where the family lived several years before moving to Oakhurst where the Navy chief graduated from Ocean Township High school. He is the grandson of the founders of Condon Funeral home in Leonardo, and the nephew and cousin of the present owners of the highly respected facility that has served the area for decades.

But there’s a special pride reserved for moms of all military, and Connie Condon Newton is overwhelmed with it, what with having one son, Aaron, a Master Sergeant in the Marine Corps and Stephen a chief who was Sailor of the Year when stationed on his last submarine before the New Jersey, the USS Hawaii (SSN776). Connie and her husband Lon also have two other offspring in whom they take great pride, their daughter Annelise who lives in Clifton and their oldest son, Lon, Jr., who lives in West Virginia.

But pride in their military service and the accomplishments both sons have made in their chosen military career fields also comes with a lot of worry, a lot of concern and a lot of wonder. “But that is really all exceeded by our pride,” Connie said enthusiastically when asked to elaborate on Stephen’s growing up years and decision to become a submariner in the Navy.

“We didn’t know anything about it,” she laughs now, thinking back the 21 years to Stephen’s senior year of high school. “He had been talking to the recruiter at the same time we were taking him around to visit several colleges. We were not aware of it, until he came home one day and offered us a choice: we could either sign him into the Navy’s Delayed Entry Enlistment program before graduation while he was still 17 years old, or” and she laughs now thinking about it, “he was going to enlist on his own the month after graduation when he turned 18.”

With wisdom and understanding taking precedence over any fears for the future, the parents opted to let Stephen enlist right away. “His mind was made up he really wanted to pursue a career as a submariner. I do not believe we should interfere with a young man who is ready to make such a mature and determined choice. It just would not be right. Whether he achieved or did not achieve in what he wanted to do would and should rest squarely on his shoulders.”

Not that it was an easy decision. Aaron enlisted in the Marine Corps the month after Stephen joined the Navy.

But the years since then have been secure, happy, and even fears overcome with more of that pride, the happy mom continues. There were no real fears for the safety of either of their sons in a nation not at war. That changed after 9-11, she concedes, but the excitement of Stephen’s career is memorable. And filled with many exciting moments in which the parents have been able to be included, as well as some frightening times when they simply did not know. There have been times Stephen’s boat was at sea and the family did not know exactly where or what it was in the process of doing. Connie concedes his time overseas was difficult for her as a mother, not knowing anything, but also understanding, “I couldn’t ask. When it was OK to tell me, I knew he would.”

After his graduation from high school, Stephen was inducted into the Navy on the Fourth of July 2000. That in itself was a special ceremony, in that he was sworn in on the Battleship John F. Kennedy by President Bill Clinton. He went to Power School in Charleston, S.C. then continued his education in upstate New York, then on to his first assignment in Groton CT on the Philadelphia, a Los Angeles Class fast attack submarine recognized as one of the most advanced undersea vessels of its type. The submarine’s primary missions include anti-submarine warfare as well as deployment of special forces, mine-laying and precision strike land attack.

It was 2014, while he was aboard the USS Hawaii, (SSN776) a Virginia class submarine like the New Jersey that Stephen was selected Sailor of the Year and his parents had one more privilege and special occasion to celebrate. They went to Hawaii where the boat was stationed for the ceremony honoring their son, and were invited not only to go aboard the submarine, but also to be on it when the boat submerged.

“We had to take a ship out to the boat,” she explained, and added “And they really do yell “Dive, Dive, Dive,” when it’s going down!, Connie said excitedly, remembering the thrill of being on a boat going underwater. She explained the “Dive” warnings are necessary because most access between decks of a submarine are by ladder, and all ladders must be cleared during a submersion. She and her husband were in the torpedo room of the boat with Steve when the announcements were made and the boat began to submerge. “Stephen’s a bit of a prankster,” she explained, “and when it’s submerging, you really feel you’re going backwards. So Stephen picked up his feet and kind of slid down the floor in front of us as the boat was submerging.” Joking aside, the Newtons still look on that experience as one of the great privileges the Navy has accorded them because of their son’s excellence.

But about ten years before that honor and unforgettable experience, the senior Newtons had their greatest concern for their son and his fellow Sailors. It was while Stephen was on the Philadelphia in 2005 and the boat was on maritime security operations in the Persian Gulf guarding against weapons and drug smuggling and terrorist movements. The boat was struck by a Turkish freighter. Knowing there would be news reports about the incident, whose cause was not determined until after thorough investigations, Stephen called his parents to let them know no matter what they heard, he and his crew were fine. Word came through television, radio and other media the submarine was run over and dragged by the foreign freighter before it was finally reported there was no serious damage to either vessel and the sub could continue to Bahrain for inspection before continuing its mission.

With more than 20 years in the Navy, the New Jersey will most likely be Stephen’s last boat assignment before possible retirement. The family is happy the New Jersey is being home-ported for now in Newport News VA, considerably closer to his parents in Delaware and where his wife Kristen, whom he married in 2010 and their two daughters, Leilani and Amya, both born in Hawaii, love school and the community where they live in Norfolk.

For a mother who has worried two very capable sons through two decades of admirable service to their military obligations and their nation, Connie said it is impossible to express the pride she has in them and their service. Speaking of Stephen she admits to being so happy when she heard from his fellow crew-members aboard the submarines on which he’s served what a wonderful friend he is, the Sailor with the positive outlook, the willing hand, and the ability to lead as only a Chief can in getting the job done. “That’s just the way he is,” she says, almost in a whisper, “it’s so nice that others see all of that as well.”


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