From the streets of Lincoln County to the seas of the Mediterranean, Josh Umphress has encountered more countries and cultures through his United States military service over the last 12 years than most people do in a lifetime.
Currently stationed in Naples, Italy, the West Lincoln High School graduate serves in the U.S. Navy as an Operations Specialist-1st Class Surface Warfare (OS1 SW) with Commander Naval Forces Europe-Commander Naval Forces Africa-Commander 6th Fleet (CNE-CNA-C6F).
Each day, Umphress manages data links among ships and airplanes from Navy, Air Force and Army bases in his specified region.
He then communicates the information to commanders scattered throughout the United States and Europe, he said.
Umphress tracks ships located throughout the Baltic Sea, Indian Ocean and all around Europe and Africa — the job’s largest area of responsibility.
Additional monitored military regions around the world are much smaller in scope, Umphress said.
According to Lt. Adam Cole, public affairs action officer for Africa Regional Engagement, much skill and technical training is necessary for carrying out the local sailor’s specialized work. Cole said the job’s level of distinctness directly relates to its technical qualities.
Because of his successful job performance, Umphress received one of the Navy’s most prestigious quarterly awards, “Sailor of the Quarter,” twice in the last year.
The sailor received a promotion following the initial honor.
“We don’t get paid a lot for the sacrifices we make and want to show them (sailors) we appreciate them for what they’re doing,” Cole said.
The award is handed out four times a year to one Naval Forces sailor stationed across Europe.
A board of chiefs nominates and votes on individuals based on work quality, naval heritage and knowledge of current events. They also consider each sailor’s level of community involvement, an area in which Umphress has shown much dedication since he lives off base and immerses himself in Italian culture.
Last year, he volunteered at a local orphanage and recently he coached a youth softball team for a group of children who had no coach.
“I didn’t want the kids to go without having something to take their minds off of school,” he said.
Umphress later took on flag football since he enjoyed the leadership role so much.
In addition to coaching, Umphress frequently assists local nuns with their olive harvest. In return, he the women offer him fresh produce and authentic Italian cooking.
Not only does he live and interact among the country’s locals but he also resides 10 miles from ancient arena ruins and the place of historic gladiator battles.
“You really get a grasp on how different the U.S. is from the rest of the world,” Umphress said.
Throughout his military career, he has traveled to numerous other countries and deployed three times in the last decade.
Not only has he conducted counter-piracy operations near the Horn of Africa but also maintained maritime security near the Arabian and Red Sea.
Additional port calls have taken him to Panama, Germany, Greece, Egypt, Israel, Dubai, Nova Scotia and various cities along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.
Of all the locations he’s visited, Lincolnton’s Startown Road will always be his home, he said.
Umphress last visited his Lincoln County family in 2011 but continues to stay in touch with them frequently through email, Skype, Facebook and other social media sites.
He said he most misses North Carolina’s Southern cooking and all the Lincoln County staples, traditions and accents that give him that “small town feel.”
Despite long periods away from home, he doesn’t regret joining the Navy right out of high school.
“I joined to travel and to have an opportunity to serve our country,” he said. At the time, Umphress was also unsure of what to do with his life after graduation.
The seasoned sailor enlisted in 1997 but left the position in 2001 just a day before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He said he wanted to attend school.
While in college in Portland, Ore., he met his wife Mercedes and her daughter Alia. The two currently live with him in Italy.
In 2004, Umphress opted to quit school and move back to North Carolina to be with his family.
For the next two years, he spent days on end with his grandpa — a former member of the Air Force — swapping military stories.
Five years after leaving the Navy, Umphress re-joined in 2006, following his grandpa’s death. He said he knew at that point the Navy was where he belonged.
Umphress most recently participated in an annual military training exercise in the Baltic Sea and surrounding regions called BALTOPS, or Baltic Operations.
Headed by U.S. Naval Forces Europe, the exercise unites 11 different countries and allies to run data link scenarios and other operations in preparation of potential real-world situations.
Umphress additionally completed a memorable assignment in Libya in 2011, Cole said.
Umphress helped carry out a United Nations mandate for a no-fly zone in the African country.
Looking ahead, he hopes to one day soon become a naval officer and serve his country until retirement age.
His next sea tour is set for 2014, but he said he has yet to receive an exact location.
While each day breeds uncertainty throughout his monitored region, and countries continue breed conflict, Umphress and his naval peers stand ready for action.
“When you raise your hand, like the saying says, you don’t know where you’re going to be called,” Cole said.