More Mississippians should crew USS Mississippi

Published 9:00 am Sunday, April 29, 2012

OXFORD — In about a month, the Navy will take delivery (in civilian terms) of one heck of a ship, a Virginia Class nuclear attack submarine. The commissioning (in military terms) of the USS Mississippi will take place in Pascagoula on June 2 and should be quite a spectacle.

There will be speakers, of course, probably including Ray Mabus, secretary of the Navy and former Mississippi governor. The ship was built in Groton, Conn., and without the efforts of a cadre of Navy veterans in this state and our former governor the commissioning would likely have been there.

An impressive, often emotional and strongly patriotic moment follows speeches at a commissioning. The crew standing on the dock is commanded to board and “bring the ship to life.” For the $2 billion SSN-782, “life” is forecast at a minimum of 33 years.

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What is hoped by a lot of the veterans and others is that once the commissioning is concluded, Mississippians will (1) adopt the ship and its crew and (2) work toward more Mississippians earning the education and skills required to earn a place on that crew.

Speaking on these topics, Capt. John P. McGrath, the Mississippi’s first skipper, pointed out that the submarine service is not staffed by swabbies (my word, not his).

The last USS Mississippi was a cruiser, serving from 1978 until 1997, and the one before that was a battleship commissioned in 1917, performing admirably during World War II and scrapped in 1956. Two others sailed earlier, the first commissioned in 1841.

Not to diminish the value of any service by any sailor who served aboard any of the four, the fact is a lot of naval duty stations in former times didn’t require much training, much use of judgment or discretion. Among the 1,100-member crew of that battleship, there were many “here’s a mop, there’s a deck” jobs.

Not so with this new ship. The USS Mississippi has a small complement, 135 officers and enlisted personnel. Even sailors assigned to wash dishes have a breadth of skills.

To its credit, McGrath said the Navy has recognized it must compete for talent. Submariners can train their way into six-figure salaries in some positions. There are no default careers about such a marvel of the defense industry.

So the question arises as to how many Mississippi high school graduates could qualify to serve aboard this ship bearing the name of their home state. And the answer is “not enough.”

That’s what makes the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education Coalition and similar efforts relevant. STEM is working in Mississippi schools and universities to light the fire of learning in young people who have the aptitude for such jobs, but, due to rural location or other factors, have never had access or been challenged.

STEM and others want to parlay the excitement associated with the commissioning into excitement among young people to work harder in school. Although the USS Mississippi is not yet officially property of the Navy, it has had a full crew for well over a year. Members of that crew, including officers, have been visiting schools to offer encouragement as well as to learn more about the state for which their ship is named.

Too, the work of the veterans won’t stop once the USS Mississippi is at sea. What they want Mississippians to do is embrace members of the crew, “adopt” them as it were and hold events to celebrate their service. The crew of the USS Nebraska, for example, is invited to college football games, honored in parades, given an annual dinner by state government. The crew of the USS Mississippi could be encouraged to post photos and stories about their unclassified missions on a website. Teachers could keep tabs, informing the students. Pen pal, or rather e-mail pal relationships could be formed.

The Navy has every reason to be proud of its newest submarine and Mississippians have every reason to be proud of having this ship in the fleet. Mississippians should also show their continuing pride and appreciation.

But there’s more.

While supporting the national defense, the USS Mississippi can and should be a point of inspiration for students in the state. Those who bring the ship to life on June 2 could, on an ongoing basis, bring energy and enthusiasm to those with the aptitude to join them.

People, including young people, need goals. Being a sailor assigned to the USS Mississippi is a worthy one.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail