'Strong And Tough:' USS Gabrielle Giffords Comes To Life In Texas

By  Mariana Dale
Published: Monday, June 12, 2017 - 6:59am
Updated: Monday, June 12, 2017 - 2:20pm

For the first time since the days of Martha Washington, the U.S. Navy named a warship for a living woman.

The USS Gabrielle Giffords recognizes the former Arizona Congresswoman who survived a 2011 assassination attempt that resulted in the death of six people in Tucson.

“Time and time again she has stood up ready to keep moving forward and to persevere with her trademark humor, kindness and relentless optimism,” said Hillary Clinton as she introduced Giffords at the commissioning Saturday in Galveston, Texas.

MORE: See Tweets From The Ceremony

The commissioning of a ship is its Navy birthday— the day it officially joins the fleet. The 421-foot-long grey USS Gabrielle Giffords was dressed for a party, decked in colorful flags.

“This is an incredible honor," said Giffords, speaking slowly and carefully to the crowd. "The USS Gabrielle Giffords is strong and tough just like her crew."

Giffords stood beside ship sponsor, Jill Biden, who gave a time-honored order.

“Man our crew and bring her to life."

"Aye, aye," Dozens of voices responded.

Hear Giffords' Complete Speech

Line by line, sailors in white ran up the gangplank, medals clinking. They will be the first crew to sail in a ship named for a living woman in more than a 100 years.

The ship is part of a relatively new era of Navy vessels called littoral combat ships. Meant to zip through shallow water, the craft  can detect mines, repel submarines and engage in surface warfare.

“It’s a very cool-looking ship and it’s a very capable ship,” said builder Austal’s USA President Craig Perciavalle.

The ship’s naming carries the weight of decades of Navy tradition. Often ships are named for places, famous battles and if named for people, presidents or military heroes.

“When somebody dies, the track record is pretty established," said Naval Historical Foundation historian David Winker. “That individual is not going to do anything to besmirch the name."

In 1776, a battleship was named for Martha Washington while she was still alive. There have been just 16 named for women since 1850, according to the Navy.

“Ship naming has gone through a big change over the years," said retired Vice Admiral Pete Daly.

Gabrielle Giffords speaks to the crowd on June 10, 2017.
(Photo by Mariana Dale - KJZZ)

The Navy is branching out from tradition. It announced last year several ships will be named for activists including Harvey Milk and Sojourner Truth. In 2012, a Naval cargo ship was named for farm labor activist Cesar Chavez.

“It’s not always A-political,” Daly, who is CEO at the United States Naval Institute said.

He said he doesn’t like the controversy.

"We should not have Democratic ships or Republican ships," Daly said. "We should have ship names that bring people together."

In his justification for naming the ship for Giffords, former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said Giffords was being honored for her support of the military in Congress and character displayed in recovering from the 2011 shooting

Her name is "synonymous with courage when she inspired the nation with remarkable resiliency and showed the possibilities of the human spirit,” Mabus said in a press release.

The USS Gabrielle Giffords commissioning brought together hundreds of people — families of the crew, dignitaries and veterans like Joe McPhail.
(Photo by Mariana Dale - KJZZ)

The USS Gabrielle Giffords commissioning in Texas brought together hundreds of people. James Woodbrey and his wife Connie traveled from Tucson for the commissioning. They arrived more than three hours early to snag front row seats.

"We've known Gabby for a long time and we love her," James Woodbrey said. He helped Giffords successfully campaign in largely Republican Green Valley, Arizona.  

Also in the crowd were families of the crew, dignitaries and veterans like Joe McPhail.

“I was in the Marine Corp all of World War II and Korea. I’m 95 years old," said McPhail.

He was impressed with the ship’s technology and its namesake.

“Well, it’s great that they honor her. She’s a patriot, there’s no doubt about it. I’m glad they’re doing that," he said. "They don’t do it many times for women.”  

Vice Chief of Naval Operations William Moran said to “absolutely” expect more ships named for women.

“Why wouldn’t we?  We’re more integrated today than we’ve ever been," said Moran.

Women are still the overwhelming minority in every branch of the military. They make up 18 percent of the U.S. Navy. It’s something the armed forces want to change.

“The majority of talented young men and women coming out of college today are young women so we want them to come serve with us," Moran said.

Giffords knows what it’s like to blaze a trail. She was the youngest woman elected to the Arizona Senate. She had just started her third term in a competitive Congressional district when she was shot. 

“You know she’s somebody that’s tough, she doesn’t give up," said her husband Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut and Navy Captain. He spoke to KJZZ by phone a few days before the commissioning.

She relearned to walk, to speak, she got back on a horse — literally. Kelly said there are numerous instances from which the ship’s crew can draw inspiration from Giffords.

Sailors salute the USS Gabrielle Giffords on June 10, 2017.
(Photo by Mariana Dale - KJZZ)

For example, when in August 2011 she returned to Congress to vote on raising the debt ceiling.

“They’re going to be there not only you know when required but also when it’s not really convenient,” Kelly said of the ship’s crew.

He said he hopes on the dark days, Giffords inspires them.

“When they get into tough spots and things are maybe not going as planned, I hope they think about its namesake. Gabby on her darkest days was just incredibly positive," he said.

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