Cmdr. Kelechi Ndukwe '02 graduated from Notre Dame as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy, with five years of service required as part of his ROTC scholarship. Twenty years later, he is still serving his country because of the impact he can have on his fellow sailors as an African American leader.
In his first Navy posting, back in 2003, Ndukwe was one of two African American officers on the ship, and the only one who had come from ROTC, as opposed to enlisted military service.
“There was one other African American officer, and he had enlisted prior to becoming an officer and told me about his experience coming up through the ranks,” Ndukwe says. “And race had never been something that I thought a lot about. I knew I was the Nigerian kid with a funny name growing up, and I went by a nickname of Kelly. But he opened my eyes to think about, ‘If you aren’t there, then who’s going to do it?’ So being an example for other junior officers coming up that may look like me, and also, just as important, for folks that don’t look like me, that’s my mindset.”
So instead of leaving the Navy to embark on civilian life after his required service, Ndukwe committed to a military career. “I’m blessed with the opportunity to lead, and that has really been a driving force for me,” says Ndukwe, the second Nigerian American to command a U.S. Navy destroyer.
Today, Ndukwe is the commanding officer of the USS Halsey. He has high expectations for the sailors on his ships, but balances that with a commitment to their well-being and future development.
One of the sailors in his command was new to the Navy and frustrated about his duties on the ship, which included cleaning the deck and bathrooms. “This young sailor told me, ‘This isn’t what I signed up for, I signed up to navigate the ship,’” Ndukwe says. “And I said, ‘Hey, you have to remember this is a temporary experience. You have two choices: You can lose focus of why you signed up and you can waste this opportunity. Or, you can realize that these experiences are part of your story and part of your challenge and can make you stronger if you go all in.”
He also told that sailor about his father, an immigrant from Nigeria who worked three jobs while studying engineering at West Virginia University in the 1970s. Today, that sailor is navigating a Navy destroyer in Spain, after seemingly taking his commanding officer’s words to heart.
Ndukwe has also taken inspiration from his parents’ determination to earn their degrees and raise their family in a new country; his mother gave birth to Ndukwe and his younger brother Ikechuku while studying nursing at West Virginia. Ndukwe is the oldest of four, and his youngest siblings, Chinedum Ndukwe '07 and Ezinne Ndukwe '10, followed in his footsteps to Notre Dame.
Ndukwe’s first memory of Notre Dame is as a nine-year-old, rooting against the football team in the Fiesta Bowl when the Irish beat his parents’ alma mater West Virginia for the 1988 national championship. But when he was looking at colleges in the Midwest, he took a tour at Notre Dame and immediately felt at home.
“My mom is very spiritual, and she felt incredibly welcomed and comfortable there on campus, and we’re not even Catholic. Going to a Catholic university was different, because I hadn’t really been in that environment before, but it just felt natural,” he says. “And that’s really, how we came upon the Navy, because being the oldest of four kids, Notre Dame was expensive, so I applied for the ROTC scholarship.”
On campus, Ndukwe studied chemical engineering and was a resident assistant in Stanford Hall, where he enjoyed the fellowship of going to Mass in the chapel on Sunday evenings.
“My senior year, being a resident assistant, being able to impact lives and mentor freshmen, especially when three short years ago I was in their shoes, was where I had my first opportunity as a leader,” he says. “To figure out how I wanted to lead my section and Stanford Hall, and still uphold the standards and the role, is very similar to what we do in the Navy now.”
Throughout his Navy career, Ndukwe, who has a master’s degree from the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and graduated from the Navy’s surface warfare program, has deployed to the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Japan. As a weapons officer, he managed the weapons on board ships and kept them combat-ready, and as a combat systems officer, he oversaw the radar equipment and communications systems that the ships used to communicate both internally and externally.
He also spent two years in Washington, D.C., as the Navy Liaison to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, serving as a resource for members of Congress when a Navy-related issue or decision came up in their state or district. He has traveled across the U.S. and around the world with members of Congress in that role, coordinating trips to Naval bases and foreign embassies.
The USS Halsey is docked in San Diego at the moment, undergoing maintenance and a change in home port from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Ndukwe’s wife, Kathryn, and his three children, Farrah, Koby, and Pippa, will finish out the school year in Hawaii, where Farrah is in kindergarten. Pippa was born in the summer of 2020, while Ndukwe was deployed, and he did not meet her until she was six months old. After being away from home during deployments, family time is precious to Ndukwe.
“My wife has been the rock of the family. She’s my absolute superhero,” he says. “Her being able to hold it down while I’ve been off representing the country and leading the team here, I could not have done it without her holding down the fort like so many Navy spouses do.”