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USNS Cesar Chavez? Navy asked to explain policy for naming ships

December 5, 2011 | 10:33 am

USS Cesar Chavez
The Senate wants the Navy to explain how it selects names for new ships in the wake of controversy over the naming of a ship in memory of labor leader Cesar Chavez.

A little-noticed provision of a defense bill that passed the Senate last week would direct the Navy to submit a report to Congress on its naming of vessels. The provision was sought by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who told reporters in a conference call last week that in light of recent controversies over ship namings, the Navy should seek "more input and think more carefully about who we’re going to name our Navy vessels after."

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) complained earlier this year that Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’ naming of a supply ship after Chavez appeared to be "more about making a political statement than upholding the Navy's history and tradition.''

A group of Democratic senators who praised Mabus' decision accused critics of a "disappointing lack of knowledge" of Navy standards and traditions, noting that similar ships have been named for explorers Lewis and Clark, aviator Amelia Earhart, astronaut Alan Shepard and civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Chavez enlisted in the Navy at age 17 and served for two years.

In a statement announcing the name in May, Mabus said: "Cesar Chavez inspired young Americans to do what is right and what is necessary to protect our freedoms and our country. ... The Cesar Chavez will sail hundreds of thousands of miles and will bring support and assistance to thousands upon thousands of people. His example will live on in this great ship."

There also was controversy this year over the naming of a ship after the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a retired Marine and former chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee who drew criticism from other veterans for accusing a squad of Marines in 2006 of killing Iraqi civilians "in cold blood."

The Navy secretary decides on names for new ships. According to the Naval Historical Center:

The procedures and practices involved in Navy ship naming are as much, if not more, products of evolution and tradition than of legislation. ... The secretary can rely on many sources to help him reach his decisions. Each year, the Naval Historical Center compiles primary and alternate ship name recommendations and forwards these to the Chief of Naval Operations by way of the chain of command. These recommendations are the result of research into the history of the Navy and by suggestions submitted by service members, Navy veterans, and the public.

Congress also makes recommendations. In fact, Hunter included in the House version of this year’s defense bill a measure that "strongly encourages" the Navy secretary to name the next available ship after Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who was killed in the battle for Fallouja, Iraq, in 2004 and nominated for the Medal of Honor.

Both the House and Senate versions of the defense legislation, which will set budget and policy for the Pentagon for the 2012 fiscal year, face White House veto threats over other provisions, including measures dealing with detainees. 

But if House-Senate negotiators can reach a compromise, there is a good chance that the ship-naming language will make it into a final bill.

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-- Richard Simon in Washington, D.C.

Photo: The USNS Cesar Chavez is shown under construction in June at NAASCO ship yard in San Diego. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

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