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‘Top Gun’ nudges Navy sailor’s career to take flight

Grit, precision, flexibility learned in military paves the way for impressive Denver Water career.

It’s a cold winter night in 1986, and 12-year-old Jack Tolmich is hunkered down on his family’s floral-printed couch with a bowl of popcorn watching his favorite movie: “Top Gun.” 

As fighter jets scream across the sky and the camera cuts to a close-up of young Tom Cruise playing the movie’s lead, Navy-pilot ace Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, Tolmich imagines what it would feel like to hit more than 1,500 mph in an F-14.

Fast forward 10 years, and Tolmich is living his own “Top Gun” situation, serving with the U.S. Navy aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.   

Tolmich stands with an F14 on the flight deck aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. Photo credit: Jack Tolmich.

Although his journey to the Navy wasn’t necessarily the path he originally had planned, it’s an experience Tolmich believes enriched his life and set the stage for a subsequent career at Denver Water.

Tolmich was in his early 20s and working a temporary job as a laborer with Denver Water’s Water Source of Supply team along the High Line Canal when he decided it was time for a change. 

“I was a young father and was looking for more than a job — I wanted a career that I could grow into and that would help me support my family,” Tolmich said. “I put my name in the hat for nearly every permanent job that came up at Denver Water, but just couldn’t seem to get very far with little experience and a tough job market.”

He decided to join the Navy to gain the skills and experience necessary to build a career. 

Tolmich (center) with fellow servicemen AK2 Munguia (left) and AK3 Soto. Photo credit: Jack Tolmich.

After attending boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois, Tolmich was assigned to the USS Abraham Lincoln, where he worked in the aircraft carrier’s aviation supply unit.

“We were tasked with maintaining the inventory of all the parts needed for more than 80 aircraft, fighter jets, surveillance planes and helicopters onboard the aircraft carrier,” he said.

For Tolmich, serving aboard the ship was like living his childhood dream.

“As a kid, I loved watching ‘Top Gun,’ and I remember sitting at the old Stapleton airport with my mom, watching the planes come in,” he said.

The icing on the cake: Tolmich discovered that the captain of the USS Abraham Lincoln had performed some of the fighter jet scenes in his favorite childhood movie. 

“I was in awe. Talk about an amazing connection! And to be surrounded by jets and to feel the adrenaline and excitement that built as an aircraft took off from the ship — it was surreal,” Tolmich said.

Tolmich with fellow sailors aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf in 1998. Top row, from left: AK1 Burnett, Lt. Hall, AK3 Tolmich, Airman Ball, AK2 Brown; and bottom row, from left: AK1 Hill, AK3 Lacuesta, AK2 Torres.

In addition to working in aviation supply, Tolmich served as a hookman on the flight deck.

“I’d basically hold a long pole and stand underneath a helicopter as it hovered over the flight deck. I’d use the pole to either hook materials onto, or take materials off, the helicopter,” he said.

“It was an intense environment, but the work gave me such a sense of pride. Every single thing you do on the ship matters; every person’s role is absolutely vital to the operation of the aircraft carrier and its mission. It was very satisfying and rewarding work,” Tolmich said.

During his three years of service, Tolmich was promoted to petty officer, overseeing the weapons systems supply aboard his ship and managing a $350 million parts inventory. 

Tolmich was proud of his role, and good at it — earning the Navy’s highest and most prestigious award for his position among the entire Pacific fleet of aircraft carriers.

Tolmich receives an award from Cpt. Willard, recognizing him for exceptional service in his role managing the ship’s $350 million parts inventory. Photo credit: Jack Tolmich.

In 1998, the USS Abraham Lincoln, along with Tolmich and 5,600 fellow service members, was deployed to the Persian Gulf for six months to provide support after bombs exploded at American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

“It was a stressful situation, but that deployment really provided perspective — our work was so critical. We were part of something much larger than each of us,” he said.

Although rewarding, Tolmich’s time in the Navy wasn’t always easy. 

“When you’re in the military, your first commitment is to service, which is hard when you have a family,” he said.

Tolmich was anxious every time he went out to sea, particularly when he was expecting the birth of his daughter.

“When we’d go out on the aircraft carrier, it could be anywhere from three days to six months. I missed spending quality time with my son, and it was certainly stressful thinking I may miss the birth of my daughter,” he said.

Jack Tolmich stands on the aircraft carrier's flight deck. Photo credit: Jack Tolmich.

Thankfully, Tolmich was able to be there for his daughter’s birth, but balancing his military service with the needs of his family became increasingly difficult.

Following his deployment in 1998, Tolmich finished his three-year service commitment and was honorably discharged, looking forward to spending more time with his family. He set his sights back toward Denver Water.

He took a temporary job working on the High Line Canal again, and this time, after a few months, was able to secure a permanent job in the heavy equipment shop.

Over the past 22 years, Tolmich has worked his way up through the organization, where he currently oversees warehouse operations and fleet services for Denver Water. He believes his military service not only provided the skills he needed to jumpstart his career, but also taught him invaluable leadership skills.

Tolmich has worked for Denver Water for 22 years, where he currently oversees warehouse operations and fleet services for the organization. Photo credit: Jack Tolmich.

“In the military, you have to make decisions in high-stress situations, and sometimes you have to make those decisions very quickly,” Tolmich said.

“The Navy taught me to be flexible, which is so important when adapting to change. And, let’s face it, change is constant. Decisiveness is an important leadership skill, and maybe you don’t make the right decision every time, but you reassess and improve the next time,” he said.

Learn more about veterans who work at Denver Water

Tolmich has fond memories of his military service, which were recently rekindled as he watched his stepson graduate from boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois — the same program Tolmich went through more than 25 years ago. 

“Being back in Great Lakes reminded me of all the great memories and wonderful, lifelong friends I made,” he said.
Tolmich said the friendships and camaraderie is what he misses most about being in the Navy.

“When you not only work with someone but count on them in life-or-death situations onboard a deployed war ship, you develop close relationships. The sailors I got to know on the aircraft carrier were like family, and I still keep in contact with many of them today,” he said.

“I’m grateful that I was able to find that similar feeling of family at Denver Water.”