Commentary: Politics shouldn't play into naming U.S. warships

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramApril 9, 2012 

It's been a long voyage from the 2006 letter-writing campaign aimed at persuading then-Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter to name a littoral combat ship after Fort Worth and the countdown that's under way to the ship's commissioning Sept. 22 in Galveston.

If the commissioning is anything like the Dec. 4, 2010, christening, it will be a day of tradition, patriotism and honor -- with special emphasis on tradition.

The Navy, like all other branches of the military, is big on paying respect to the past. Every step in the life of a ship -- from its naming to the keel laying to the mast stepping to the christening -- is rooted in appreciation for the thousands of times it's been done before.

Or at least it had been. The current Navy secretary temporarily abandoned the tradition of naming ships to honor an individual's sea service or recognize a place or an event that exemplifies the character, spirit and commitment to service that the Navy represents.

Ray Mabus turned time-honored Navy tradition into an exercise in political pandering.

The Navy secretary has sole discretion in deciding what name will be painted on a ship's hull. That doesn't mean he operates in a vacuum.

In the campaign to get a USS Fort Worth, ship sponsor Kay Granger knew community support was crucial, especially since the vessels were being named for U.S. cities. Granger was determined to make sure Winter received plenty of evidence of broad-based community enthusiasm for designating an LCS after Cowtown's official name.

Winter was inundated with literally thousands of letters, post cards and newspaper coupons that encouraged him to choose USS Fort Worth for the Navy's third littoral combat ship. In return, this city promised Winter that throughout the service life of the ship, Fort Worth residents would engage in an ongoing relationship of support with the crew and their families.

Mabus, Winters' successor, was sworn into office in June 2009. He quickly became a target of criticism from Navy and Marine veterans and several members of Congress for abandoning the norms of ship naming protocol to make what they viewed were political statements.

In 2010, Mabus, a former Mississippi governor and U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, named a San Antonio-class amphibious transport ship after former Pennsylvania Rep. John P. Murtha, the defense appropriation's king of pay-to-play.

In May 2011, Mabus named a Lewis and Clark-class cargo ship after migrant labor leader Cesar Chavez.

Chavez and Murtha both served in the military -- but so did thousands of other Americans whose actual combat experience demonstrated such courage and selflessness that they merit the honor of having their names on a U.S. ship.

Mabus' decision in February to name the 10th LCS after former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords elicited one of those "gosh, this is wrong but you don't dare say anything publicly" reactions.

Giffords is worthy of admiration and respect for her dogged determination and courage to overcome the injuries she sustained in the horrific January 2011 shooting during a town hall meeting in Tucson. However ... during her time in the U.S. House she wasn't exactly the outspoken champion of naval services. She did serve on the Committee on Armed Services, but her subcommittee assignment was tactical air and land forces. Married to a Navy captain and former NASA astronaut, Giffords was the only member of Congress whose spouse was active duty military.

Name a school, a library, a health clinic after her. Not a ship.

To his credit, Mabus tacked back toward tradition in the five most recent ships' names. Three Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers are being named the USS John Finn (one of 15 Navy men to receive the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), USS Ralph Johnson (a Marine private first class who received the Medal of Honor posthumously for shielding two fellow Marines from a grenade during the Vietnam War) and USS Rafael Peralta (a Marine staff sergeant who shielded fellow Marines from a grenade during Operation Iraqi Freedom).

And LCS 11 and 12 will be named the USS Sioux City and the USS Omaha, respectively -- and respectful of tradition.

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