A 1995 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Captain Carlson earned a Bachelor of Science in Systems Engineering. He is originally from the Chicago, IL, suburb of Romeoville.
A career surface warfare officer, Captain Carlson has served in the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets, as well as Forward Deployed Naval Forces in Bahrain and Europe. He commanded the guided missile destroyer USS Higgins (DDG 76), and the coastal minehunter crew Endurance, embarking in USS Heron (MHC 52), USS Cardinal (MHC 60), and USS Cormorant (MHC 57). Shipboard assignments also include USS Chancellorsville (CG 62), USS Gladiator (MCM 11), USS Dextrous (MCM 13), and USS Normandy (CG 60).
Ashore, Captain Carlson studied at the Naval Postgraduate School, receiving a Master of Science degree in Astronautical Engineering and a diploma from the Naval College of Command and Staff. He later completed Joint Professional Military Education at Joint Forces Staff College. He served as Chief, Posture Planning and Theater Integration Branch in the Policy, Strategy, and Partnering Directorate (ECJ5/J8) of Headquarters, U.S. European Command. Carlson also served as Deputy to the Assistant Chief of Staff for Aegis and Ballistic Missile Defense for Commander, Naval Surface Force Atlantic. He holds Navy subspecialties in Space Systems Engineering and National Security, and is a joint specialty officer.
Carlson most recently served as the first commanding officer of the U.S. Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System Romania, establishing the Navy’s first land-based ballistic missile defense capability for Europe.
Carlson is proud to wear the Navy Unit Commendation, Meritorious Unit Commendations, and Battle Efficiency Awards for service at sea and ashore with his shipmates.
How has failure or apparent failure set you up for later success?
Failure is interesting because you define what failure actually is. You can run a fire drill and technically “fail” the drill. But if, as a result, you are able to better combat a real fire, then it wasn’t a failure. Working through perceived failure helps you develop toughness, resilience, and perseverance. In high school, I broke some bones. For a 17 year old, the world was ending because I couldn’t play sports, run, and I thought I might not get accepted to a commissioning program. I thought it was a failure. In the end, everything turned out fine, and that experience became a strong foundation that I could fall back on. When you’re able to get through tough circumstances, that experience becomes part of your toolbag that you’re able to draw from later on.
Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?
Professionally, I like the quote by Commodore Maury: “When principle is involved be deaf to expediency.” It’s my job to make sure that we’re disciplined enough not to rush to action or judgement. Another one that I like is, “We fall to the level of our training.” Colonel David Grossman proved how true that is in combat, which is why we have to make sure that our training is as tough and realistic as possible. Personally, I like what Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and to work with your hands.” That keeps me centered. It’s easy in the Navy to become enamored with stature, status, or authority. That quote is a good reminder for me to be humble, lead a quiet life and not seek my own recognition. Finally, I love what Colin Powell said, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.” Always collaborate and never use your seniority as an excuse to be authoritarian.
What is the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? Do you have a morning routine?
My wife and I have a combination routine since we have four little ones at home. One of us works out, while the other gets breakfast ready. We also read the Bible together. We try to get it done before any of the little people are up. The command decided to save the sailors’ time on the commute by having them come in at 8AM instead of jamming them through the 7AM bottleneck that is gate traffic. This enables me to eat breakfast with the family, which is a great way to start the day.
What career advice would you give a smart and driven young SWO? What advice should they ignore?
I’d say this: don’t give too much credence to deckplate theory or personal stories. A lot of people are predisposed to translate their own experiences as gold standard truth for someone that is seeking advice. Don’t seek out someone that says, “This is what I did, and I’m successful so you should do it too.” Look to be mentored by someone that is objective and understands their own inherent bias.
Never underestimate your ability to inspire up the chain of command. We’re all communal creatures, and the people above you need encouragement too.
Also, get a copy of the section of US Code called the exemplary conduct statute. It starts by talking about COs and other persons in authority promoting the welfare of the sailors in their charge. You are required by law to look out for the best interests of the sailors who you are entrusted with. JOs, not just COs, have that responsibility. If you’re hearing advice that runs contrary to putting the welfare of your sailors first, ignore it.
How do you set priorities and manage time?
With great difficulty! (laughs) It all starts for me by centering in the morning. It’s important for me as a professing Christian to realign with the Bible each morning because my selfish nature drives me away from what is actually important. For managing time, I try to make sure that I manage my inbox and make sure that I don’t let my inbox manage me. It also helps for me to block out specific times to process communication flow.
What is the book you’ve given most as a gift and why?
I’ve given Bibles to all my kids. (laughs) For JOs, I recommend Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat by Wayne Hughes. I also always recommend biographies. People that have taken the time to study someone else are better able to negotiate life. Biographies are powerful because you can leverage someone else’s experiences to progress through challenging circumstances. It’s also important to read people who challenge your thinking in order to expand your point of view.
What is your most effective daily habit?
My most effective daily habit is using food as a tool for connection. It works well because I like to eat! (laughs) I do everything I can to be purposed during meal time and make it a communal act. An example of this is roasting coffee in the mornings with my wife. There’s something about having the door open with a nice morning breeze and smelling the coffee that draws us closer together. I identify with the character that Ewan McGregor plays in Black Hawk Down because he had a coffee habit. Having something like that can be particularly powerful as a habit because it can be a tool to fall back on during a crisis situation.
How do you define success?
I like the definition that was given in the old Engineering Assessments Manual - “Success is explicitly defined by achievement on the continuum of excellence.” In the Navy, success if mission accomplish as evidenced by prompt and sustained combat operations at sea. Larger success, however, is more evident in legacy building. In other words, can a ship sustain excellence even after you’ve left? If not, your success might have been driven by personality or force of effort. Success for me personally is about achieving a balance. You’re not going to have the same balance between work and life over every single tour. However, you need to think and plan out how you will be balanced over the course of a career. For me, if you’re able to have mission accomplishment combined with balance, that’s success.