Last year, when Chuck Munns was the commencement speaker at USC Aiken, he received an honorary doctor of public service degree from the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees.
“What was neat, to me, is that they would recognize public service as being so important, and I really appreciated that,” Munns said.
His actions on behalf of his community and his nation have ranged from the menial to the noble.
During a more than 30-year career in the U.S. Navy, Munns rose to the rank of vice admiral. He also served as the commander of America’s submarine forces from October 2004 until February 2007.
Today, he can be seen in Aiken wearing a fluorescent vest while collecting litter along the sides of roads with his fellow Rotary Club of Aiken and St. Paul Lutheran Church members.
Occasionally, Munns even goes out on his own to clean up a 2- or 3-mile segment.
“I hate all the trash around here, and sometimes it gets to be too much; so I’ll go out and just pick it up by myself,” Munns said. “We’ve got such a lovely town, and when you see a soda bottle, a beer can or a paper bag, it destroys the whole ambience of what we are and sets the wrong example.”
A native of Minnesota, Munns was the oldest of five boys in his family. His mother worked as a nurse prior to his birth, and his father was a salesman for a dental supply company.
Because of his father’s job, “we moved probably every three years,” Munns said. “We kept going from one place to another.”
They ended up in Iowa, where Munns went to high school, and there he met his future wife, Kristin.
While a freshman at Iowa State University, Munns joined the ROTC and applied to the U.S. Naval and U.S Air Force academies.
“I was looking for a way to pay for college, and I think I also was looking for leadership opportunities,” Munns said. “It seemed like an adventure.”
After being accepted by both military schools, he chose the Naval Academy.
“One of my uncles on my dad’s side went to West Point and one went to the Naval Academy,” Munns said. “I didn’t know them really well, but one was an aviator. He would fly his big plane into Minneapolis, and it was exciting.”
At the Naval Academy, Munns studied physics and computer science.
He also became a member of the heavyweight rowing team and was talented enough to be invited to attend an Olympic camp for elite athletes.
In addition, Munns traveled internationally.
“We represented the United States in an event in West Germany,” Munns said. “It was my first face-to-face meeting with the Soviets. It was the Cold War, so the Soviet Union was considered a threat. Our coxswain, a little guy, was a Russian speaker, so he wanted to go over and try to talk to the Soviet team. But they had chaperones and weren’t allowed to socialize with us, so he didn’t ever get very far.”
Munns, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1973, wanted to become a submarine officer.
“I loved the technology and the excitement of it,” Munns said. “The submarine force was growing. The Navy was really getting into nuclear propulsion, and we were building four nuclear submarines a year.”
Munns, who later earned a master's degree in computer science from the University of Colorado, served on five different submersibles – the USS Seadragon, USS Ethan Allen, USS New York City, USS Florida and USS Richard B. Russell.
Because of the Cold War, “we felt like were doing important things for our nation’s security,” he said. “We were always known as the silent service, and we very rarely discussed what we did.”
Often it involved gathering intelligence and stalking the Soviet vessels.
“We tried to detect them without being detected ourselves,” Munns said. “We would operate in areas near Russian coastline in case we ever had to engage in conflict there. We would watch how they operated, and then when we saw them do something, we made sure they could counter it. That kept us very busy.”
When Munns was the commander of the Richard B. Russell, he once briefed President George H.W. Bush in the Situation Room, which is in the basement of the West Wing of the White House.
“He was interested in what we did, but I can’t talk much about what happened because it is still very highly classified,” Munns said. “I went there with three or maybe four of my people, and spent about 30 minutes with him (Bush) and his staff. To sit down and tell the president what you did was pretty heady stuff.”
From June 2000 until February 2002, Munns was stationed in Naples, Italy, where he served as the commander of Submarine Group 8.
“I was responsible for a tender, which is a surface ship that has a thousand people on it, and they repair submarines and other ships,” he said. “I also was in charge of the operations of any submarine that left the United States and went on a deployment to the Mediterranean Sea.”
In addition, Munns and his staff also supervised the operations of submarines that participated in North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, missions in the Mediterranean.
“We would tell them what to do and how to do it,” Munns said.
While he was in Italy, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks killed nearly 3,000 people in the United States in 2001.
“Whenever a crisis like that happens, I will just say that there is a conference call, and the president and the secretary of defense, along with all the other key people, are on it,” Munns said. “Because of my position with the submarines in the Mediterranean, I was on that call. I listened to what our intelligence community was saying and what our leadership was saying, and at the same time, we were trying to take care of our own people.”
During the United States’ response to the attacks, Munns was in charge of submarines involved in military action against the Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network.
Following Munns’ retirement from the Navy in 2007, he moved to Aiken and became the president and CEO of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, or SRNS, which is the management and operating contractor for the Savannah River Site.
“I spent three years with them,” Munns said. “It was hard work, and it was great work. I really enjoyed it. I learned so much from the three parent companies (of SRNS). Then, I decided that I really was going to retire, and Aiken was better than every other place we looked at living. We like the weather, and we like the people.”
Munns, 69, does some consulting work, and since 2010, he has served on the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education.
“Higher education is so important now,” Munns said. “For a person to have a good quality of life and be a productive member of our state, they really need to have a certificate or a degree, but it doesn’t have to be a four-year degree.”
Munns also is a member of the board of directors and a past board chair for the Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness.
And he picks up litter.
“It’s good exercise,” Munns said.