MURRAY – As Veterans Day was approaching, local U.S. Navy veteran A.J. Cunha last month celebrated his retirement from the military after 20 years of service.
Cunha, 38, officially retired as a master chief in the Navy on Oct. 28. He was born in Portugal to a Portuguese father and a mother from California, who met one another when his father was working in agriculture in the U.S. He immigrated to the U.S. when he was 5 and grew up in Tulare, California, a small town near Fresno. One of five boys in the family, he followed in the footsteps of his two older brothers and joined the Navy in June 2001. Those brothers are now retired from the Navy, and his youngest brother is currently stationed in England on active duty with the Air Force, he said.
“Both of my older brothers were active duty at the time, and they were both in the Navy,” Cunha said. “I didn’t see myself going to college at the time, and I saw that it provided quite a bit to them. I wanted to get out of the small town, so I joined.”
After graduating from basic training, Cunha went to the military police academy at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay near St. Marys, Georgia and then got his first assignment in San Diego guarding the submarines at Naval Base Point Loma. Having joined three months before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he observed massive changes in the military early on.
“After 9/11, it was a surreal moment, and obviously the culture of the military changed drastically,” Cunha said. “Not that it wasn’t high tempo or people weren’t on edge before, because anything could happen at any time. But the reality is that it did happen, so all of a sudden, training and deployments ramped up very quickly and the expectation for each service member was a lot higher. Obviously, we just pulled out of the global war on terrorism, so my entire career, that was the tempo.”
It was 10 years before Cunha said he made the decision that his time in the Navy would actually be a career.
“I definitely joined for the adventure,” he said. “At (the time of enlistment), I had no ambition or any plans to do a career. I was going to do four years, use the privilege of the GI Bill to go to college at a time I would be a little more mature, and I always wanted to go to school for education.”
Cunha met his wife, Natalie, in the Point Loma area, which is where she grew up, and they married and started a family. He then moved into the field of forest protection, with a specialty in counseling, which he thought would make him marketable once he became a civilian again someday. He and Natalie moved from San Diego to Eugene, Oregon, which was possible because one of the things that changed in the Navy with the War on Terror is that every state got its own training center to mobilize reservists. In Eugene, he trained Navy reservists to deploy to Iraq, Afghanistan and Djibouti.
Over the course of three years in Oregon, he received a couple of promotions and was then transferred in 2010 to a drug operations squadron in New Orleans. He regularly worked with the Coast Guard and deployed to Columbia, El Salvador, Panama and Curaçao. He said he loved the work environment during that assignment and that the level of training was “outstanding.”
After volunteering for back-to-back sea duty, he served for three years in Sasebo, Japan, where he worked on a mine sweeper detecting mines and doing bilateral exercises with the Japanese and South Korean Navies. During that time, he spent 270 days a year at sea and visited the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
“I would ride some of the Japanese and Korean ships to do some international exchanges, which was an amazing experience that most people don’t get,” he said. “I had a chance to spend time at the DMZ, which probably now would not even be an option. So I’ve been inside that blue building where they communicate from North and South Korea on the line, which was amazing.”
During that tour, Cunha was promoted to chief petty officer, a major milestone in a sailor’s career. After his time overseas ended, he was stationed at the Naval Support Activity Mid-South in Millington, Tennessee, which is the Navy’s human resources headquarters and works closely with the Pentagon. For that job, he was responsible for 5,000 sailors and decided where to move them for different stages of their careers to fill various vacancies around the country.
Cunha was promoted to senior chief, the second-highest ranking in the Navy. He was then screened for command and asked to go to Sacramento, California to be second in command at the Navy Operational Support Center. He had 2,000 sailors under his leadership and was there for three years. In 2018, his personnel played a role in providing aid and resources for agencies fighting the wildfires in that region, so he saw the “devastating” damage to those forests and neighborhoods up close.
As he was promoted over the years, he was often the youngest person in the rank structure, which some might see as a curse, but he views as a blessing. The final promotion of his career happened while he was in Sacramento when he became master chief after 17 years of service.
“I promoted there to master chief, which is the highest rank of the enlisted ranks,” he said. “That’s one rank that only 1% of the Navy achieves. So that was a huge milestone for any sailor, let alone me. I would have never imagined that someone who was going to join the Navy for four years would reach the top of the ranks during the 17 years of my career. There are fewer master chiefs in the Navy than Navy captains, and our job is to train all the enlisted and also to train the junior officers and to be an aid for advice to the admirals.”
After that promotion, Cunha had a choice between going to the Pentagon or going back to the sister command post in Millington. He chose Millington, where he was responsible for about 65,000 sailors, and it was his job to establish how many people were going to be promoted across the Navy and what their jobs and rank levels would be.
Cunha knew it was going to be his last tour and that he would finish his career there, so he and Natalie wanted to find a place to settle permanently. He decided he was willing to commute as far as an eight-hour drive during his final tour of duty, so they started looking for towns within that distance from Millington. He had never heard of Murray before, but while researching possible “forever homes,” he saw an ad that referenced Murray’s 2012 designation as “Friendliest Small Town in America” by USA Today and Rand McNally.
He and Natalie eventually narrowed their choices down to Evansville, Indiana, Paris, Tennessee and Murray. They fell in love with Murray when they visited, and Murray State University and the local schools were also big factors in their decision. After spending so many years on active duty, Cunha said he was grateful that Natalie could finally make her career a priority. They moved here in 2019, and Natalie is now a year away from graduating from the Murray State School of Nursing & Health Professions. Cunha said their children – Trevor, 15; Grace, 15; Miles, 11; and Sunny, 7 – also love living here.
Always wanting to contribute to any community in which they’ve lived, Cunha joined the Murray Lions Club and agreed to serve on the board of directors for the United Way of Murray-Calloway County. He became friends with Mike Jones, a retired Army colonel who settled in Murray a few years ago, after meeting him through the Veterans of Foreign Wars Herman Eddie Roberts Post 6291. He said Jones had mentored him and helped him transition into civilian life, and he was honored when Jones nominated him to be named a Kentucky Colonel, surprising him with the certificate at the end of July. Jones is also a Kentucky Colonel himself, Cunha said.
Now that he is retired and not yet 40, Cunha is starting the next chapter in his life. Starting Monday, he will begin three months of student teaching at Murray Middle School, which will be followed by three months at Murray High School. He said he is grateful to the Murray Independent School District for the opportunity.
Looking back, Cunha said he is very happy he chose the career path he did. He said he had been blessed with great leadership above him, and his experiences have made him who he is. During his service, he was also able to further his education, earning a master’s degree in criminal justice at St. Joseph’s University in 2011 and a degree in strategic and operational leadership from the Naval War College in 2017.
“I met some amazing people along the way,” he said. “In 20 years, I got the chance to deploy five times and I got the chance to see more than 15 countries. There might be faster ways to get there, but it was the journey of getting there (that made it rewarding), and being able to spend seven years of my life at sea. For some people, that would not be appealing, but I will say there is no better view than (looking out at the ocean) with a cup of coffee, and you can’t hear any cars. You’re just out there enjoying the moment.”