Master Diver’s career celebrated in Frazee
By Barbie Porter
After a long career with the Navy, Mike Sonnenberg is ready to return to civilian life.
To celebrate the veteran, his family hosted a ceremony at the Frazee-Vergas VFW this past weekend. Sonnenberg thanked his family for organizing the event, noting it meant a great deal to him. He shared his official ceremony was held in another state, but some family members were not able to attend that event.
The son of rural Frazee residents Jeff and Jennifer Sonnenberg, told his father he wanted to join the military after graduating from high school. An opportunity presented itself to join the Navy, and the 1992 Frazee High School graduate signed up. However, a broken finger put everything on pause.
Sonnenberg explained while in football he had broke a finger and metal was used to fix it. When that tidbit was learned by the Navy, he was told a waiver would be needed for him to enter.
Sonnenberg worked in rural Vergas for an excavator and after months had passed without contact with the Navy recruiter, he began considering other options. His high school sweetheart, Heidi Wagner (who later became his wife), suggested they attend college. As the thought of college began to settle as a feasible option, Sonnenberg got the call in July 1992 from the Navy stating he would be admitted.
While leaving his sweetheart was difficult, Sonnenberg saw an opportunity that would help him become a better man for those he loved. It all started with basic training.
“They bring you on a bus and yell a lot,” he recalled. “I grew up milking cows, throwing hay bales and doing hard labor, so the physical part felt easy. Mentally, I grew up blue collar and developed thick skin, so that wasn’t tough for me either.”
After basic training, Sonnenberg began his Navy career doing paperwork.
“I hated it; all three years,” he said.
However, while working in the office a magazine landed on his desk that showed a deep sea diver. The article spoke about a special skill-set and the schooling it required. Sonnenberg saw his future with the Navy. He applied and took the necessary tests, proving his physical prowess and ability to endure the pressures put upon the body in the dark deep depths of the oceans and seas.
In 1996, at 22-years-of age, Sonnenberg entered the Navy’s Second Class Dive School. The 20-week education was so physically challenging that more than 50 percent of his classmates didn’t graduate, he said.
“I saw some of the strongest and smartest not make it,” he said, noting for him motivation to keep going came from an unbreakable will to succeed.
Those that graduated were qualified to dive down 300 feet, although Sonnenberg said the furthest down he has went is 210 feet. His first four years were spent fixing ships and diving underneath submarines for maintenance. He noted taking the ships out and fixing them on a dry dock is very expensive compared to doing the work in the water.
During one of those jobs, he experienced one of the most scary moments of his career. He was called to duty around 2 a.m. with choppy seas and a rough current. Sonnenberg dove down to perform work on a ship, but the line, which connected him to his team above, tangled in the propeller. The sea moved the ship and its propeller up and down.
“I went to swim under the ship and was slammed around,” he said. “My life flashed before my eyes.”
Working alone, he knew if he cut the line he would likely die of hypothermia as the waters were frigid. He credited the weeks of high-pressure and intense training for providing him with wits to get it together, not panic and untangle the line.
The following two years were spent doing inspections and the two after that he and his family moved to Hawaii. Sonnenberg became an instructor, teaching new Navy divers the lessons and skills he learned from several years in the field.
“I was teaching where tourists go to dive,” he said. “I loved that job; I’d come full circle from learning to teaching.”
As is the case with most military careers, a move was in the works. His next assignment was a command specialist in Virginia Beach, Va. He was called to participate in recovery missions for ships and planes that rest in the water. Such was the case when a commercial airliner went down in 2010 near Beirut, Lebanon. Sonnenberg was deployed in the Middle East and called to assist in the recovery effort. He said those missions left images in his mind, as there were often souls lost.
He then spent almost five years as an inspector, essentially providing quality assurance that all jobs were done properly as a command master chief. He said his job was like being the coach of a team of 180 people.
No matter what career path the Navy provided Sonnenberg, there were plenty of travel opportunities. He noted his time in the service took him to the most extreme climates and remote locations. He and his wife embraced the opportunities and lived abroad as well as in several states before calling Virginia Beach, Va. home.
Of all the honors and medals Sonnenberg collected during his 291/2 year career with the Navy, he said the one he is most proud of is the Meritorious Service Medal. Earning that meant he was able to see young men and women flourish with the hard work they put into their Navy careers.
The Sonnenbergs celebrated 29 years of marriage and have raised two daughters: Desirae and Sabrina, both of which are adults. As he heads to his next journey in life, Sonnenberg said spending time with his three grandchildren is a high priority.
Officially, he will retire Nov. 30. He already has his next job lined up. Sonnenberg will be a general manager for a commercial diving company that does welding and maintenance work.
Sonnenberg said what he learned in the military mirrored what he learned at Frazee High School from teachers and coaches, as well as his parents—that goals can be achieved and teamwork is important.