Lt. Junior Grade Riley Roberts recently departed on her first deployment, which will involve seven months driving the USS Gunston Hall, performing repairs and in command of some of the 600 other sailors on board.
Her vessel’s whereabouts and duties are classified — even to her family — but the 25-year-old naval officer, from Dade City, is embracing all the emotions that come with her first military orders.
“I’m mostly excited, but there are some nerves and stress,” Roberts said, in a recent telephone interview. “The weight on your shoulders that you’re navigating a ship with 600 of us on it, so their lives are in my hands. It’s a little scary driving it, but I also do enjoy it.”
At Pasco High School, Roberts was a member of the JROTC, but didn’t sign up for service after graduation. Instead, she attended Florida State University and then enlisted in Officer Candidate School, where she graduated in July 2019.
She was stationed at the naval base in Norfolk, before her deployment.
While Roberts is away at sea, those back home in Dade City will be keeping her in their prayers, especially those at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
She has belonged to the church since was born and has been active in myriad ways. She has served as altar server, been involved in youth group, has done ministry work and has performed in the choir.
“People at our church watched her grow up, care about her, have seen her sing in the choir,” said her mother, Tracey. “Even if they don’t know her name, they know Riley’s voice. So they’re asking about her all the time. Neighboring Catholic churches have added her to the prayer list and, of course, our parish gathered to offer a Mass for her protection.
“That means a lot to us and, of course, her,” Tracey said.
More than just prayers, Sacred Heart also added Riley to its Wall of Honor, a place where parishioners dating back to World War II are recognized for their service in the U.S. Armed Forces. Also on the wall: her father, David, and grandfather, Scott.
“My mom showed me pictures of it and I got goosebumps seeing myself up there with all the names,” Riley said. “I’m humbled to be on there when I think about all the others up there who lost their lives during bigger conflicts.”
At home in Dade City, Tracey, who works for Sacred Heart’s Early Childhood Center on the church grounds, is dealing with her own nerves, as any mother of a military officer would.
“It’s kind of terrifying, quite frankly,” Tracey said. “I am very proud of her, more proud than I thought I would be. I toured her ship, (have) seen what she does, driving a 600-foot warship. She’s super inspiring and has become a very tough, independent, brave person. In my mind, she’s going to be fine, but I’m still her mom — still going to worry.”
Certainly everyone at Sacred Heart will worry for Riley, especially those who she lovingly calls her “Old People Fan Club.” But she is ready to take on this seven-month challenge, even when faced with uncertainty regarding the war between Russia and Ukraine, and a potential for U.S. military involvement.
Riley says she will think of her family, and her church, in Dade City.
“I love going to that church because everyone knows who I am,” she added. “I get recognized around town, and, to be honest, I’ve struggled to find a church here in Virginia because none can compare to mine.
“I know it sounds cheesy, but I joined (the Navy) because I felt obligated to do so. I feel every able-bodied person should serve your country, so I joined and didn’t care what my job would be. If I had to scrub toilets, so be it. But, right now, there are no plans to engage (with Russia) and I hope it stays that way.”
Published April 06, 2022