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In Memoriam: Rear Admiral Ronald L. Christenson, USN

Aug. 31, 2023 | By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. U.S. Navy Retired) Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
It is with deep regret that I inform you of the passing of Rear Admiral (lower half) Ronald Lee “Rabbit” Christenson on 24 August 2023 at age 75. Rear Admiral Christenson entered the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1965 and served as a naval aviator until his retirement in February 2000 as head of Aviation Manpower and Training (N889) in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV). His commands included Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron SEVEN (HS-7), Dubuque (LPD-8), and Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), and combat deployments in operations Desert Storm and Deliberate Force (former Yugoslavia). 

Ronald Christenson entered the U.S. Naval Academy on 30 June 1965 by way of Mt. Morris High School, which he had led to a Michigan state football championship. He played football all four years at the Naval Academy, excelled in academics, and had the nickname “Rabbit” bestowed on him. The academic major program didn’t formally start at the academy until the Class of 1972; however, the Class of 1969 was the first in which qualified graduates were awarded designated engineering degrees, making Midshipman Christenson one of the very first academy graduates to be awarded a bachelor of science in aerospace engineering. He graduated and was commissioned an ensign on 4 June 1969. Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, he subsequently studied at the California Institute of Technology, earning a master of science in aerospace engineering in 1970. 

Promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in June 1970, he reported that same month to the Naval Air Basic Training Command at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida, for flight training. Christenson was designated a naval aviator on 6 August 1971. He then reported to Fleet Airborne Electronics Training Unit, Atlantic, for an additional month of specialized training. 

In September 1971, Lieutenant (j.g.) Christenson was assigned to Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron ONE (HS-1) at NAS Quonset Point, Rhode Island, as a fleet replacement pilot for the SH-3 Sea King helicopter. In January 1972, he reported to recently commissioned HS-15 “Red Lions,” initially at NAS Lakehurst, New Jersey, before relocating to NAS Jacksonville in November 1973, serving as ground training/line division/administrative officer. HS-15 embarked on amphibious assault ship Guam (LPH-9), which had been selected by Chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt to serve as the test platform for Interim Sea Control Ship trials. In these, the normal complement of Marine helicopters was modified to include AV-8 Harrier jump jets and Navy ASW helicopters to test the ability of the amphibious assault ships to serve as convoy escorts in the event of war with the Soviet Union and freeing the larger carriers for other tasks. During this period, Guam deployed to the North Atlantic. HS-15 was also awarded a Meritorious Unit Commendation for rescue operations in the 1973 floods in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Christenson was promoted to lieutenant in July 1972. 

In November 1974, Lieutenant Christenson reported to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron ONE (VX-1) at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, serving as a pilot and helicopter projects analyst during the LAMPS (Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System) MK III project evaluation. He was also educational services officer. In June 1977, he was assigned to the British Royal Navy as an exchange pilot, initially to 706 Royal Navy Air Squadron (helicopter training). After qualifying on the Westland Sea King, he was assigned to 820 Royal Naval Air Squadron, Culdrose, Cornwall, England, as a Sea King pilot embarked on light cruiser HMS Blake. Christenson then served as an instructor in the operational flying training unit aboard Royal Fleet Auxiliary helicopter support ship Engadine. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in July 1978. 

In August 1979, Lieutenant Commander Christenson began studying at the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, graduating with honors in July 1980, before several months of additional study at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. In September 1980, he reported to HS-1 as a fleet replacement pilot. 

In February 1981, Christenson was assigned to HS-5 “Nightdippers” as administrative/maintenance officer, embarking on Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) for a particularly arduous North Atlantic deployment from August to October 1981. This was followed by a Mediterranean deployment from January to July 1982, which included an evacuation of U.S. citizens from Lebanon following the Israeli invasion in June 1982. HS-5 was awarded a Battle E. In January 1983, he was assigned to Sea Based Anti-Submarine Wings, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, as safety officer. 

In October 1983, Christenson assumed duty as executive officer of HS-7 “Dusty Dogs,” deploying to the Mediterranean embarked on John F. Kennedy (CV-67) from September 1983 to May 1984. The deployment began with a port visit to Rio de Janeiro and was followed by contingency operations off Lebanon, including participation in a strike in Lebanon on 4 December 1983 in which a U.S. Navy A-6 from John F. Kennedy and an A-7 from Independence (CV-62) were shot down. He was promoted to commander in March 1984. In April 1985, Christenson assumed command of HS-7 for workups for another deployment, detaching just before John F. Kennedy deployed in August 1986. HS-7 was awarded a Battle E and the Commander Sixth Fleet “Hook ‘Em” Award and nominated for the Arleigh Burke Fleet Trophy.
In August 1986, Commander Christenson reported to Naval Military Personnel Command in Washington, DC, as head, Aviation Ratings Assignment Branch (NMPC-40). He was designated a joint specialty officer in 1988 by virtue of his tour with the Royal Navy. In July 1988, he commenced a nuclear power training track at Nuclear Power School, Naval Training Center, Orlando, Florida, followed in March 1989 by training at Naval Nuclear Power Training Unit, Ballston Spa, New York. In September 1989 he reported for a short temporary duty to Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69), followed the next month by training at Surface Warfare Officer’s School Command, Newport, Rhode Island, and then in November 1989 at Naval Reactors, Department of Energy, in Washington, DC. 

In March 1990, he assumed duty as executive officer of Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). In December, the ship was ordered on a short-notice deployment to the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf for participation in Desert Storm combat strike operations. On the return transit in the Mediterranean, it participated in Operation Provide Comfort humanitarian relief operations for Kurds in Northern Iraq. Christenson was promoted to captain in August 1990. 

In December 1991, Captain Christenson assumed command of amphibious transport dock Dubuque (LPD-8) at Sasebo, Japan, in the Forward Deployed Naval Force. His tour included a deployment to the Persian Gulf. In April 1994, he was assigned to Naval Reactors, Department of Energy, in preparation for carrier command. 

In May 1994, Captain Christenson assumed command of Theodore Roosevelt, deploying to the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf in March 1995 for an eventful cruise that included participation on Operation Southern Watch (no-fly-zone enforcement over southern Iraq), Operation Deny Flight (no-fly-zone enforcement over Bosnia), and Operation Deliberate Force. The latter was the first major combat operation in NATO’s history and included multiple strikes against Serbian targets in Bosnia. Christenson returned from this deployment in September 1995. 

Captain Christenson was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) on 1 October 1996 after Senate confirmation, but opted not to put on stars until after his change of command, scheduled for 1 November. On 14 October 1996, while he was asleep in his cabin, Theodore Roosevelt conducted an engineering drill and backed down without notifying escorts in advance, resulting in guided missile cruiser Leyte Gulf (CG-55) colliding with the carrier’s stern and incurring $9 million damage to the carrier and $2 million to the cruiser. Christenson’s change of command was held as previously scheduled, and he was temporarily assigned to Commander Second Fleet during the investigation, which subsequently found the carrier at fault. He was given a punitive letter of reprimand, as were the commanding officer and executive officer of Leyte Gulf, who were also relieved of their duties. 

In December 1996, after his orders to the command of U.S. Naval Forces Marianas were cancelled, Rear Admiral Christenson reported to OPNAV as head, Carrier Programs, and head, Aviation Manpower and Training (N889), where he continued to provide exemplary service. He retired from active duty on 1 February 2000. 

Rear Admiral Christenson’s awards include the Legion of Merit (at least one award); Bronze Star; Meritorious Service Medal (two awards); Navy Achievement Medal (two awards); Joint Meritorious Unit Award; Navy Unit Commendation; Meritorious Unit Commendation (two or three awards); Battle E Ribbon (three awards); Navy Expeditionary Medal; National Defense Service Medal (two awards); Southwest Asia Service Medal (two campaign stars); Armed Forces Service Medal; Sea Service Ribbon (multiple); Overseas Service Ribbon (two); NATO Medal; Kuwait Liberation Medal (Saudi Arabia); Kuwait Liberation Medal (Kuwait); and Pistol Marksmanship Medal. (Note, Christenson’s service transcript is incomplete; the above is based on a small photograph and may not be completely accurate.) 

Following retirement from active duty, Rear Admiral Christenson worked for Lockheed Martin, including a significant period as group managing director of United Kingdom Integrated Systems in Chichester, England. He retired in 2011, devoting his time to family and personal pursuits. 

A vigil service will be held 1800–2000 on Friday, 1 September, at Loudon Funeral Chapel and Crematory (158 Catoctin Circle SE, Leesburg, Virginia) followed by funeral mass at St. John the Apostle Catholic Church at 1130 on Saturday 2 September (101 Oakcrest Manor Drive NE, Leesburg). Burial will be at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery this November at a date to be determined.
At his change of command from Theodore Roosevelt, Rear Admiral Christenson stated that “with the exception of a couple hours, the past 28 months have been the most rewarding of my life.” He could have added that under his command “TR” had one of the most successful deployments of the 1990s, participating in combat operations in Iraq and Bosnia. Those “couple hours” constituted a classic, “there but for the grace of God go any one of us” in an otherwise brilliant career, for which he deserves most to be remembered. He blazed a trail to senior ranks for others in the HS community to follow, with multiple tours with Battle E’s and other prestigious awards. He displayed exceptional leadership in multiple crises and combat operations, including Lebanon contingency operations, Desert Storm, Southern Watch, Deny Flight, Sharp Guard, and Deliberate Force. He was intellectually brilliant, known to do crossword puzzles—in differential equations—for relaxation. He is probably also the only Navy flag officer to have once been a finalist with his wife on the Newlywed Game, and apparently the marriage survived the encounter, as well as numerous deployments and time away from home, at great sacrifice in the service of our nation. This exemplary service was recognized during the contentious debate over whether he should retain his one star following the collision. The Secretary of the Navy was against it, but a board of flag officers and the Chief of Naval Operations recommended retention, with which the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense concurred, but further promotion was off the table. The Navy system of accountability is unforgiving, even for a much-needed catnap, the lesson being that there is a degree of luck in anyone achieving flag rank, which should engender a significant degree of humility. Rear Admiral Christenson served our Navy and nation faithfully and with extraordinary dedication that truly made a difference for the better everywhere he served. The Navy remembers Rabbit’s service, and the sacrifice borne by his family. 

Rest in Peace, Admiral Christenson.