Standing outside the Town House Bake Shop, two Sailors dressed in summer whites peer through the bakery’s window at a display of treats. They reminisce for a bit and pose for a selfie in front of a case of tea cookies — a mouthwatering hometown treat with a signature dollop of pink, yellow, green, purple or blue frosting. The bakery, and its neighboring storefronts, may seem like an ordinary small-town shopping center, but for the pair laughing like old friends in the middle of a cluster of brick buildings on Keith Street, this was once home to the Cleveland Recruiting Command. This was where they both launched their naval careers. 

Commander Tonrey Ford, Naval Talent Acquisition Group (NTAG) Nashville commanding officer, and Commander Karen Firestone-Muntean, Naval Recruiting District San Antonio, commanding officer, realized they shared a similar history when they met three months ago in Millington as new captain-selects. The two had been in Millington as a part of their promotion process. They soon discovered they had enlisted three months apart from each other out of the same Cleveland station in 1988, and now their careers had brought them to yet another similar achievement.

“I said, ‘I know Cleveland, Tennessee,’” said Ford, retelling the account of their first meeting.
The pair further learned Ford had graduated from Bradley Central High School and Firestone-Muntean had graduated from the bordering McMinn County High School. Each attended Cleveland State Community College, Ford from 1986 to 1988 and Firestone-Muntean in 1992-1994. Firestone-Muntean went on to graduate from Cleveland’s Lee University. Now, both Ford and Firestone-Muntean are captain-selects on the same orders.
Cleveland, Ford described, is the type of country town that has a road known as the “roller coaster,” where young drivers used to get carried away recreating scenes from the Dukes of Hazzard. 

It was this small town that brought both Ford and Firestone-Muntean into the recruiter’s office. Coincidentally, they both had the same recruiter, Interior Communications Electrician First Class Ricky L. Lanier. They shipped off to boot camp as enlisted Sailors within 30 days of each other. 

Her boot camp experience, Firestone-Muntean recalled, was one of the most memorable moments in her career.
When 17-year-old Firestone-Muntean presented the idea of enlistment to her parents, Boyd and Phyllis Firestone, as a means of paying for the high costs of a four-year education, they courageously signed on and encouraged their daughter to explore her potential. Three days after her 18th birthday, Firestone-Muntean headed for boot camp as a hospital corpsman (HM) in Orlando, Florida. 

It was here, Firestone-Muntean said, that her confidence really took shape. 

“In boot camp, I was promoted to E-2 because of my performance,” said Firestone-Muntean. “And for me, I was an average student. I was not an athlete, and I was extremely shy. I didn’t know very many people in the military. I didn’t know very many women who ever left the area. For me, going to boot camp was a big step, and to get that affirmation so early in my career, really set a lot of things in motion.”

After joining, Firestone-Muntean went on to serve with the Marines for seven years. She transitioned to the Reserves in 1992 and began college, graduating with a master’s degree from the University of Chattanooga. She was selected on her first commission application as a supply officer, later moving to the Human Resources (HR) Community Reserve Program when she transitioned to Navy Full-Time Support (FTS).

“The Navy has been really good to us,” said Firestone-Muntean as she and Ford glanced down at a photo of a small Navy white service hat, affectionately referred to as the Dixie cup, that she had made for her newborn cousin using her old boot camp stencil. 

Like Firestone-Muntean, Ford attributes hard work and the opportunity to experience life outside of a small town to his success.

After graduating high school, Ford said it was expected that he pursue a conventional route and immediately attend college.

“I was struggling in school, so I really didn’t have a whole lot to offer, and the Navy picked us up,” said Ford. 
He decided to enlist in 1988 and served as an operations specialist aboard USS Stephen W. Groves (FFG 29) and USS Spruance (DD 963). While some of his friends discussed getting out of the Navy after four years, he stayed.

Ford said there are certain moments a Sailor will get to experience that they will never get to see anywhere else in the world. He recalled sailing through hurricanes, witnessing the green flash, an optical phenomena at sunset over the ocean, aboard the USS Kearsarge (LHD-3), visiting ports in Jerusalem and coming home to his wife, Robin Renner Ford, pregnant with their daughter, Holly, waiting for him on the pier after deployment.
“When you talk about the things that define a career, it’s these moments,” said Ford. “I never would have experienced any of these things if I hadn’t ventured into the recruiting office 31 years ago.” 

The Navy offers the tools for a Sailor’s success, said Ford.

“Your success or failure is really dependent on you. If you’re willing to work hard and put forth the effort, then you will be successful,” said Ford. 

Despite having been denied nine times for a Surface Warfare commissioning program, he applied to every program available and was picked up on the 10th attempt. Ford now holds a bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in chemistry from the University of Memphis and two master’s degrees from the University of North Florida and the Naval War College in Rhode Island.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from. It doesn’t matter what you do. It doesn’t matter what your background is. The great thing about the Navy is that everybody is always equal, and all that matters is how hard you work,” said Ford.

Ford and Firestone-Muntean, once two high school students who joined the Navy outside the Cleveland station, now stand side by side ready to accept the prestigious role of captain in the U.S. Navy. They smile as they order sweets from the Town House Bake Shop. While they wait for their orders, the local customers regard them as celebrities. After posing for a photo with a young child and his family, they take the time to talk with some of the young generation who may follow on the same path they ventured on over 30 years ago.


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Updated March 1, 2017 (kbh)