The U.S. Navy prides itself on being a diverse and inclusive organization, one in which any person from any walk of life can succeed. Sure, this may seem like just a tagline, but Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 22 commodore Capt. Milciades "Tony" Then proves it is a reality.
Captain Then's story begins on the beautiful island of the Dominican Republic. He was born to a middle-class working family that stressed hard work and education. He grew up in the country's capital of Santo Domingo, the largest city in the Caribbean. Living with his family, he recalls a strict upbringing both in and out of the household.
"When I was young, I attended a Jesuit school, and that came with a lot of discipline," Then said. "From a very young age, we were required to wear a uniform, achieve good grades, participate in sports and do community service."
His close-knit family stressed other qualities such as self-discipline, teamwork, and organization at home. He recalled being taught lessons in carrying himself, courtesy of his grandfather.
"My grandfather also served in the military," Then said. "So, I remember him, in more colorful language, telling me to look my best at all times. He taught me that if I wanted to be treated like a gentleman I needed to look the part. He would never allow us to leave home not looking sharp."
Then’s life entered a new chapter when, at 10 years old, his family moved to Miami, Fla. From one metropolitan hub to another, new challenges arose for Then.
"Getting to America, I had to learn a whole new language," he said. "While many people spoke Spanish in the area, learning a new language certainly held me back in some ways."
Captain Then excelled in school amongst his peers in science and math. However, the language barrier hampered his grades overall. College was not a viable option for Then, whose family was trying to get by day-to-day. He would go from school and swimming practice into work, either at Burger King or Sherwin-Williams. The disciplined life Then had in Santo Domingo continued in Miami, where the discipline and hard work came out of necessity.
"My mother worked two jobs for as long as I could remember," Then said. "Her hard work set the example for my brother and me. She always worked not for what we wanted, but for what we needed."
According to Then, on top of school, sports, and work, Miami presented its own set of trouble in the late 1980s and early '90s. All this contributed to Then, an average student, having little knowledge of attending college and limited options following high school. As soon as he was eligible, he gained his American citizenship and decided to join the military shortly after that. Joining the Navy was an easy decision for Then, who saw it as having skin in the game as an American.
"I gained my citizenship right before departing for boot camp," Then said. "I was an undesignated fireman, so my training was quick before I got to my first ship."
With the Broadened Opportunities for Officer Selection and Training program, known as BOOST, an opportunity quickly arose for Then. Upon reporting to the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58), Then was assigned to the Auxiliaries Division. The program took Then off the ship and to San Diego for a year, improving his academics and fitness. Failing in the program was not uncommon yet was a foreign thought for Then.
"I could not understand not giving max effort during that year," Then said. "Sure, it was hard. Many hours of schoolwork, physical training, and military drill every day for a year can be exhausting. However, I knew where this would lead me. The discipline that I learned growing up served me during that time and helped me mature as well."
After BOOST, Then traveled to Annapolis, Md., to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. Then graduated in 1997 with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. Minoring in Spanish, Then admits the reason behind his seemingly odd choice.
"The minor certainly helped keep my GPA up. I certainly saw the advantage," Then said with an unmistakable smile.
From there, Then served on several ships and at different commands, experiencing an operationally laden early career. Then’s first opportunity at command came on the Cyclone-class patrol ship USS Sirocco (PC 6) during Operation Iraqi Freedom. On his first shore duty he served as a minority admissions officer for the Naval Academy. A unique opportunity, Then’s focus was to recruit and prepare candidates of different racial and ethnic groups, alongside two other officers. These three officers canvassed the entire country, with Then recounting his area stretching from Texas to Florida, with everywhere in between.
“I remember my peers asking for my help, talking to parents who may not speak English very well,” Then said. “These students and candidates, they came from different upbringings and not all of them were good. It is no secret that some urban education is not very good, and helping bring these students along to their ultimate goal despite the challenges they faced was my job.”
Then recounted meeting some former students in the fleet, many lieutenant commanders or nearly commanders.
“You cannot box yourself in or limit yourself simply because of how you look or how you sound,” Then said. “In the Navy, only your work ethic and drive limit how far you can go. The Navy has certainly taken care of me, helping me grow in many ways.”
Now, on Dec. 1, 2021, Then took command of DESRON 22, where he was deputy commodore since October 2020. He now leads four Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, USS Mitscher (DDG 57), USS Laboon (DDG 58), USS Ramage (DDG 61), and USS Mahan (DDG 72). Then’s path to DESRON 22 saw him command Mitscher, where his crew earned the Battle “E” twice.
“For a Surface Warfare Officer, command is the zenith of their career. Mitscher gave me the opportunity to command at a higher level and be able to work hard leading Sailors while operating one of the most advanced warships in the world.”
Then’s story is one of conquering adversity and making the most of opportunity. However, his rise to DESRON 22 is one of historical importance. Then is the first Dominican-American to serve as commodore of a destroyer squadron, an important step forward for minorities serving in the Navy. Then’s response to the milestone was humble, and he advised those following him.
“I tried hard to build a good reputation in the Navy and never gave my peers opportunity to discount what I did,” Then said. “The Navy always rewarded my hard work, and that is why I am here today. While I could not have done this without the lessons and support from my family, I know that the Navy makes it possible for people to succeed. They just have to want it and take it for themselves.”