After graduating from Columbia Falls High School in 1992, Robert Stout entered boot camp.
Seventeen years later, he became a master chief petty officer in the Navy, a rank exclusive to about 1 percent of those enlisted.
Entering the Navy was something Stout, 39, thought would entail four years of service, yet 21 years later, Stout said he likely would sign up for another tour before possibly retiring to Montana.
During those 21 years, Stout earned a Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice and History, met the woman who would become his wife (at the time also enlisted in the Navy) and had four children.
Stout returned to the Flathead Valley this week to share his experiences with Boys and Girls Clubs and Rotary Clubs in Columbia Falls and Kalispell.
On Wednesday, Stout visited his hometown Boys and Girls Club, answering a wide range of questions from about 20 eager children ages 5 through 12. The hot topic was military vehicles and weaponry. Children were also impressed to learn that all the residents of Columbia Falls could fit on a Navy aircraft carrier, which holds a crew of 5,000.
Before talking about jobs and duties in the Navy, Stout briefly talked about growing up in Columbia Falls. Right across the street, Stout pointed to the school where he attended elementary and junior high.
“Strive for excellence,” Stout said. “You’re our future; if you decide to enter the Navy or college, great, but whatever you do, do the best you can.”
Ten-year-old Caleb Sweder of Columbia Falls was brimming with information about Navy SEALs.
“I really want to join them,” Sweder said. “SEALs go everywhere — land, water and air.”
After Stout’s talk, Sweder said he learned that the Navy often works with other military forces such as the Marines and organizations such as the FBI and Coast Guard.
Joining the Navy has allowed Stout to work and travel around the world: Canada, Greece, Iceland, Italy and Japan. He’s been to every continent except Antarctica.
As a young man in high school, Stout said, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do as a career. When Stout went to get his driver’s license, he stopped by a recruitment office where a friend knew some of the recruiters.
“I say the same thing [to youth] even in my job with the young sailors — they are the future of the United States whether it’s politics or military service or college, and it’s our responsibility to guide them and show them the different opportunities out there,” Stout said.
Stout said it was important that he talked to youth about the Navy’s role while on leave because landlocked states such as Montana usually don’t get to see or hear much about the Navy.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t know much about the Navy besides my grandfather being prior military, prior Navy,” Stout said.
Working as a master at arms, Stout deals with military law enforcement, force protection and anti-terrorism duties onboard Naval ships or installations.
“Seventy percent of the world is covered by water; 80 percent of people live by it and 90 percent of all cargo and shipping is done over it. We’ve got to protect all that,” Stout said. “My primary background since the attack of the USS Cole DDG-67 is teaching ships and installations how to defend against a terrorist attack,” Stout said.
Eighteen sailors were killed in the bombing of the USS Cole by suicide attackers in a small boat.
For three years, Stout was part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
“We would board other ships and search for terrorists or contraband or anything that could hurt or cripple the United States or our allies missions such as mines in the water [or] the smuggling of oil out of Iraq,” Stout said.
The military has certainly shaped Stout as an adult.
“It made me more dedicated and focused towards completing any challenges that come my way. One of the things I tell my sailors always: ‘You must exceed the mission. If you settle for the standard and you mess up, you’re below the standard at that point.’”
Between visiting community groups Stout has worked in a trip to Glacier National Park, picked huckleberries in the North Fork and plans to attend Columbia Falls Heritage Days this weekend.
“I enjoy being back to see the community. I can’t wait to see what the Columbia Falls swim team does,” Stout said noting that he has been an avid swimmer since 5 and swam competitively through high school.
On Sunday, Stout returns to Washington where he is stationed.