CHARLESTON, S.C. (NNS) -- In May of 2001, Naval Academy Midshipman Dana Toale walked across the stage at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, shook the hand of then-President George W. Bush, received her diploma and was commissioned a Navy ensign, answering a call to military service she had felt since she was a little girl.
It had not been an easy journey. Service academy life is meant to be challenging, and at 22 she had already faced more challenges than most of her shipmates.
Her mom passed away when Dana was nine, and she was raised by a single father in Old Bridge, New Jersey. Her dad, who had enlisted in the Army and served in Korea, stressed the importance of education. She excelled in school and, like her father, wanted to serve her country. She started researching Reserve Officer Training Corp as well as the Naval and Coast Guard academies. After her junior year in high school, she went to a weeklong summer seminar at the Naval Academy, and her course became clearer. “I really loved the environment,” she said.
Through the long academy application process, she kept her options open. “I applied to so many schools since I really did not think I was going to get into the Naval Academy,” she said.
When U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone from New Jersey’s 6th Congressional district sent her name forward as his primary Naval Academy candidate, that sealed it. She reported July 1, 1997 for Plebe Summer, an intense, boot camp-like experience designed to transform civilians into midshipmen.
Each new Naval Academy class, known as plebes, arrives on Indoctrination Day for in-processing. Men’s heads are shaved; women’s hair is cut short. They are medically screened, fitted for uniforms, taught to salute and march, assigned to a dorm room, take part in a mass swearing-in ceremony and say goodbye to loved ones. Subsequent days include intense physical training, rifle/pistol qualification, sailing lessons, damage control, room inspections, swim tests and more, all the while memorizing and reciting naval history on command.
While the summer seminar the year before gave her an idea of the physical demands, it was still a challenge.
“I was not good at pushups,” she said, “but the great thing was that the whole squad would support you. There were times I was running in the back of the pack, but I was never alone. Your shipmates always had your back.”
At the end of her sophomore year, her father learned he had cancer. There was discussion within the family of options for Dana to take a leave of absence to care for him. But this was not an option at the academy, and she knew her dad did not want her to give up her dream of naval service. Thanks to supportive academy leadership, she was able to spend many weekends with him, as well as holidays and the month of vacation between her sophomore and junior year.
In April 2000, her father passed away. As executor of his will, Dana had to handle affairs such as clearing out their New Jersey home and selling it. “So junior year was very hard,” she said. She found the support she needed from her shipmates. During senior year, midshipmen choose a warfare specialty and request a first tour. She chose the Surface Warfare Officer specialty, selected the guided missile destroyer USS Grace Hopper (DDG 70) homeported in Hawaii, and was accepted into the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program via a selective interview process.
To this day, Dana considers her Naval Academy journey one of her biggest accomplishments.
“There were many times throughout those four years that I wasn’t sure I was going to make it, especially when my dad got sick,” she said. At the end of the graduation ceremony, the midshipmen throw their covers [hats] into the air. For Dana it was a proud but bittersweet moment that made her think of her parents.
“When we threw our covers in the air and I looked up, I really felt they were watching over me the whole time, and were proud,” she said. While her parents were there only in spirit, she was among shipmates who had become like family.
She reported to Surface Warfare Officer School (SWOS) in Newport, Rhode Island. The September 11 terrorist attacks that occurred when she was at SWOS gave her desire to serve a whole new meaning. She then reported to Hawaii, and by April of 2002, she was deployed aboard Hopper to the North Arabian Gulf to support Operation Enduring Freedom.
In 2003 she reported to the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command (NNPTC) in Charleston, South Carolina, for nuclear officer classroom and prototype training which involved a year of long days of studying, tests, drills and rotating shift work. After NNPTC, she reported to carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in Bremerton, Washington. The ship embarked on an around-the-world cruise that included several months on station in the Arabian Gulf supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom and Maritime Security Operations.
The carrier went next to Newport News, Virginia, for a 36-month Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH), which required long hours and stressful conditions for Dana and the ships’ nuclear qualified crew. During RCOH, she attended the Prospective Nuclear Engineering Officer school, studied long hours for the exam and interviews, and qualified as a Nuclear Engineering Officer with Naval Reactors. Eager to pursue different opportunities to serve and to return to the Lowcountry in South Carolina, she left the Navy in 2006 with an opportunity to serve in a different capacity as a defense contractor with Science Applications International Corporation.
“It was a chance to support warfighters, not in the nuclear domain, but still supporting the Navy and still doing technical work,” she said. She worked as a contractor for almost 2 years before being hired as a government employee at NIWC Atlantic.
Her education and active duty experience enabled her to hit the ground running as a systems engineer and then as a first line supervisor, first in the Emergency Management and Command and Control Competency and then in the Requirements and System of Systems Engineering Competency. She got married in 2015, becoming Dana Tommasini. In 2016, she was selected NIWC Atlantic Supervisor of the Year. In 2017, she was nominated by her peers to serve as the Leadership Council Co-Chair and then became the chair in 2018.
In 2018, she was named to Charleston’s Forty Under 40, an elite group that excels in the professional arena and in community involvement. Her integrity, commitment, positive attitude, drive to excel and communication skills are often lauded. She was selected competency manager for the Command and Control Systems Engineering Competency in October 2018, and began serving in this role after returning from maternity leave after the birth of her first child, a son.
It was at the Naval Academy, during a time of family loss that she learned how to define family in a different way.
“My shipmates took me in like family," she said. "My crew team was my family. They are the ones I’ve still stayed in touch with over the years.”
“Every fourth of July reminds me of that first week at the Naval Academy,” Tommasini recalled. “We came in on the first of July, and it was all pretty much a blur for the first few days.”
Then they paused briefly on July 4 to celebrate Independence Day.
“That had a great impact on me,” she said. “It showed me I was part of something bigger than myself. I realized how incredibly blessed I was.” Tommasini and her husband also celebrate their wedding anniversary on the fourth of July.
As a midshipman at the Naval Academy, as a nuclear engineering officer and Surface Warfare Officer at sea and ashore, and now as a civilian at NIWC Atlantic, Tommasini never wavered from her lifetime commitment to serve.
“I do love the military," she said. "I’d love for my son to serve our country, if that’s what he wants to do.”
As a part of Naval Information Warfare Systems Command, NIWC Atlantic provides systems engineering and acquisition to deliver information warfare capabilities to the naval, joint and national warfighter through the acquisition, development, integration, production, test, deployment and sustainment of interoperable command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, cyber and information technology capabilities.
Editor’s Note: Faces of Freedom is a series of features highlighting the bravery and dedicated service of Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic military veterans. This is the third installment of this series.