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In Memoriam: Rear Admiral Donald K. Bullard, USN (Ret.)

July 18, 2023 | By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
It is with deep regret that I inform you of the passing of Rear Admiral Donald Kenneth Bullard on 11 July 2023 at age 72. Rear Admiral Bullard was commissioned in June 1973 and served as a naval aviator until his retirement in February 2008 as the first commander of Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC). His commands included Strike Fighter Squadron NINE SEVEN (VFA-97), USS New Orleans (LPH-11), USS Constellation (CV-64), and Carrier Group SIX. 

Don Bullard graduated from the University of Southern California (USC) in 1973 with a bachelor of science degree in business administration. He was a midshipman battalion commander in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) at USC, as well as being an avid surfer and dirt track race car driver. He was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy on 6 June 1973. 

In June 1973, Ensign Bullard was assigned to Attack Squadron ONE TWO SEVEN (VA-127) “Royal Blues,” the West Coast A-4 Skyhawk fleet replacement squadron at Naval Air Station (NAS) Lemoore, California, where he served as an assistant line division officer. In September 1973, Bullard commenced aviation ground training at Naval Air Basic Training Command (NATBC), NAS Pensacola, Florida. In November 1973, he began flight training in Training Squadron ONE (VT-1). In January 1974, he continued training at Naval Aviation Schools Command at NAS Pensacola before reporting the next month to VT-22 at NAS Kingsville, Texas, flying the TA-4J Skyhawk light attack jet trainer. Upon completion of training, he was designated a naval aviator. 

In April 1975, Ensign Bullard reported to VA-122, the West Coast A-7 Corsair II fleet replacement squadron located at NAS Lemoore, California. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in June 1975. In December 1975, he reported to VA-113 “Stingers” at NAS Lemoore, flying the A-7E Corsair II and serving as line division officer. He deployed with VA-113 to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean embarked on USS Ranger (CV-61) from January to September 1976. In April 1977, Lieutenant (j.g.) Bullard cross-decked to Attack Squadron VA-195 “Dambusters” as quality assurance officer, deploying to the Western Pacific embarked on USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) from October 1977 to May 1978. He was promoted to lieutenant in July 1977. 

In June 1978, Lieutenant Bullard reported to VA-122 at NAS Lemoore as project officer, flight instructor, and phase landing signal officer (LSO). During this tour, he completed a mid-Pacific deployment as aviation liaison officer with Destroyer Squadron TWO ONE (DESRON 21), embarked on guided missile cruiser Leahy (CG-16). In August 1980, he reported to Carrier Air Wing FOURTEEN (CVW-14) as attack landing signal officer and strike operations officer, deploying to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean embarked on USS Coral Sea (CV-43) from August 1981 to March 1982. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in August 1982.

In August 1982, Lieutenant Commander Bullard reported to Commander Naval Air Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet (COMNAVAIRPAC) as LSO training officer and assistant light attack training officer. In September 1984, he returned to VA-122 at NAS Lemoore for refresher flight training. In December 1984, Bullard was assigned to VA-27 “Royal Maces” at NAS Lemoore, serving as operations officer and deploying twice to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean embarked on USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) from October 1984 to May 1985 and August 1986 to February 1987. In July 1987, he was assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) in Washington, DC, as tactical air training officer and training devices/NTP coordinator in Op-05. He was promoted to commander in September 1988. 

In May 1989, Commander Bullard returned again to VA-122 at NAS Lemoore for refresher training before reporting in January 1990 to VA-97 “Warhawks” as executive officer, deploying to the Northern and Western Pacific on USS Carl Vinson from September to November 1989. He assumed command of VA-97 in July 1991, leading the transition from the A-7 to the F/A-18 Hornet and resignation of the squadron as VFA-97. VFA-97 embarked on USS Kitty Hawk for an east-to-west Cape Horn transit in October–December 1991. During this period, VFA-97 was awarded the Battle “E,” the CNO Safety “S,” and the Vice Admiral McCluskey Award as the best attack squadron in the U.S. Navy.

In September 1992, Commander Bullard attended the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, graduating a year later with highest distinction and earning a master’s degree in foreign affairs. Following attendance at the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, he returned to the Naval War College in November 1993 as a senior research fellow for a Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet basing study. He was promoted to captain in July 1994. 

In September 1994, Captain Bullard attended the Senior Officer Ship Material Readiness Course in Newport before assuming command of amphibious assault ship New Orleans (LPH-11) while the ship was on deployment in the East China Sea. New Orleans subsequently deployed to the Indian Ocean, making the Navy’s first port visit to Jordan in over a decade. During this period, the ship earned the Battle “E,” Safety “S” and the Admiral Flatley Aviation Award. 

In December 1996, Captain Bullard was assigned to COMNAVAIRPAC as assistant for force readiness, requirements, plans and programs. In January 1998, he assumed command of USS Constellation (CV-64), deploying to the Western Pacific in June 1999. Leaving mid-deployment, in September 1999, he returned to COMNAVAIRPAC as chief of staff. 
In July 2000, Captain Bullard was designated a rear admiral (lower half) for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank. The next month, he reported to the Joint Staff in Washington, DC, as a deputy director for operations, National Military Command Center. He was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) in January 2001. In September 2002, he assumed command of Carrier Group SIX (COMCARGRU 6) and the same month became deputy commander of Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in Djibouti. In January 2003, he resumed normal CARGRU 6 duties, deploying to the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf in June 2004 as commander of the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) Battle Group (JFKBATGRU) for that carrier’s last deployment. Bullard was promoted to rear admiral (upper half) in June 2004.

In October 2004, Rear Admiral Bullard reported to Commander U.S. Fleet Forces Command (CFFC) as director of readiness and training (N4/7). In January 2006, with a nucleus staff from CFFC N4/7, Bullard was directed to stand up the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command at Naval Amphibious Base, Little Creek, Virginia. NECC serves as a type command, consolidating a broad spectrum of U.S. Navy expeditionary warfare capabilities, including maritime and port security, logistics support, construction, littoral and coastal warfare and patrol, coastal and riverine warfare, explosive ordnance disposal, expeditionary diving and combat salvage, and combat photography. Rear Admiral Bullard retired from active duty on 1 February 2008. 

Rear Admiral Bullard’s awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal (two awards); Legion of Merit (four awards); Meritorious Service Medal (three awards); Navy Commendation Medal; Navy Achievement Medal; Meritorious Unit Commendation (three awards); Navy Battle “E” Ribbon (two awards); National Defense Service Medal (three awards); Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; Sea Service Deployment Ribbon (two bronze stars); and Pistol Marksmanship Ribbon. 

Following his retirement from active duty, Rear Admiral Bullard spent most of his time making up for lost time with family. He served occasionally on various boards and as a volunteer on various projects, including traveling annually to Guatemala with medical and surgical teams with Faith in Practice.

Perhaps it was destiny that a surfer and dirt-track racer would end up as the first commander of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, as the type commander in charge of Navy forces that would operate ashore, and in rivers, harbors, and the littoral. However, he spent most of his career in the air (more than 4,000 flight hours and more than 1,000 carrier traps) and at sea (11 deployments counting CJTF-HOA) far from home shores. Rear Admiral Bullard was an exceptional attack pilot (A-7E and F/A-18), who demonstrated an extraordinary ability to lead organizations to success (including multiple Battle “E,” Safety “S,” and prestigious competitive awards) and he did it with some of the oldest ships in the fleet (USS New Orleans, USS Constellation, and USS John F. Kennedy). Standing up NECC was certainly a crowning and lasting achievement, and it was no easy feat integrating disparate Navy communities (many of them traditionally under-resourced) into a cohesive command—with a mission that made sense. He provided strong advocacy for these different mission areas, enabling the Navy to better support the ground-centric campaigns of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, and demonstrating great innovation and agility. His path to flag required great personal and family sacrifice, for which the Navy and nation should be grateful. His legacy at NECC was lasting and has made a profound impact on the Navy’s ability to fight across a full spectrum of conflict. He will truly be missed.

Rest in Peace, Admiral Bullard.