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Hats off to USS Minnesota

Captain John Fancher welcomed Dick and Connie Kovala, left, and Harvey Harvel, right, and their families to the U.S.S. Minnesota.1 / 3
The 134 sailors of the U.S.S. Minnesota lined up on deck of the nuclear submarine after the ship was put into active duty.2 / 3
U.S.S. Minnesota Captain John Fancher with his in-laws Judy and Don Henderson. Fancher's wife, Amy, is a native of Minnesota, having graduated from Edina High School.3 / 3


Not only was it an amazing experience to see a U.S. submarine commissioned, but having a family member at the helm made it even more special for some area residents.

Connie and Dick Kovala, their daughter Anna Aakre and Connie’s brother Harvey Harvala, all of the Snellman area, made the trip to Norfolk, Va., to see Connie and Harvey’s niece’s husband take command of the USS Minnesota submarine.

Several other family members from Minnesota made the trip as well including Harvala’s daughter Joanne Costello, Kovala’s other daughter Alissa Kovala, Ben and Jake Harvala, and Renne and Burt Hill of Park Rapids.

The event is invite only.

“You don’t get one of those every day,” Dick Kovala said of the invitations. “It’s a bucket list thing.”

“It’s historical,” added Harvala. “It was a family event, which is important. And we wanted to show support to our sailors.”

He said he also had a personal interest in attending. As a structural engineer, he was intrigued to see the submarine.

The commander of the submarine they went to support is Capt. John Fancher. He is a native of Indiana and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1991. He has gone through years of training, schooling and experience to end up at the top command of the newest and most advanced nuclear-powered attack submarine.

And coincidentally, it’s named the USS Minnesota, where his wife, Amy, grew up. She graduated from Edina and is the daughter of Judy (Harvala) and Don Henderson.

“It’s good to support family, and it was an opportunity to be proud of Minnesota,” Connie Kovala said. She added that while it was interesting to see a submarine in person since she hadn’t before, it was also “more meaningful because of the family attachment.”

The submarine was built at Newport News Shipbuilding and is 377 feet long. It can stay submerged for up to three months at a time. Construction began in February of 2008, and it was commissioned on Sept. 7.

Dick Kovala said the submarine cost $2.6 billion.

While at the commissioning ceremony, the group of family members was waiting in line to see the inside of the submarine. Connie Kovala said they had been waiting at least an hour to an hour and a half and debated leaving the line, but decided it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience so they were going to stay in line and wait.

Her niece, Amy, found them, heard how long they were waiting and went to find her husband, the new captain of the sub. Kovala said that Fancher came over and said, “Follow me.”

They headed to the front of the line and “we got our own private tour. It was awesome,” she said.

Working in the imaging department at Essentia Health St. Mary’s in Detroit Lakes, she said she wanted to talk nuclear chitchat with Fancher – a conversation that never took place.

Though it was a quick trip for the Minnesotans – they flew down Friday and returned Sunday – they said it was well worth it.

Harvala and Dick Kovala also attended the christening of the submarine in October of 2012.

The commissioning was a formal, organized and impressive ceremony.

“The whole Navy decorum they use,” Connie said really stuck with her. “They are steeped in protocols and policy and very proud to be where they’re at.”

Several dignitaries spoke at the event, including Minnesota senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.

After the ship’s sponsor Ellen Roughead said, “Man our ship and bring her to life,” Kovala said all the sailors that would be serving on the submarine lined up in front of it to take charge of the now active submarine. It is the most advanced warship in the U.S. Navy.

Harvala said the protocol was amazing to him as well. When certain people boarded the sub, a bell would ring. When they exited, a different bell would ring. Same with flags being raised and lowered, depending who was aboard.

He said that while they didn’t know the difference, the sailors knew exactly who was on the sub that way.

He added that Norfolk in general was a sight to see. The naval complex is the largest in the world.

“You couldn’t help but be impressed with all the Navy goings-on,” he said.

Just being at the ceremony and seeing the naval station made the family members see how big a deal the Navy is because many times is gets overlooked, or rather not as “out there.” Which is why is has been dubbed the “silent service.”

“We were able to be a part of the silent service,” Harvala said.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.