Navy Secretary Ray Mabus

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, left, formally announces the naming of the new naval vessels the USS Billings and the USS Montana during a ceremony at MetraPark on Wednesday.

Casey Page, Billings Gazette

BILLINGS - A crowd of more than 200 people, many of them veterans or active duty Navy and Marine Corps personnel, welcomed Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to MetraPark on Wednesday as he performed one of what he calls “my coolest official duties” — the naming of a pair of naval vessels.

To loud applause, Mabus unveiled renderings of the USS Billings, a littoral combat ship, and the USS Montana, a Virginia-class attack submarine, during a 35-minute ceremony that also featured U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Gov. Steve Bullock.

Littoral means close to the shore.

Each of the dignitaries received a hat featuring one of the to-be-constructed vessels and the chance to sign the drawings.

“It is unusual for a Secretary of the Navy to come to a state not real close to the ocean,” said Mabus, who’s worked in his position since 2009. People identify beautiful vistas and big skies when they think of Montana, he said, and “sailors and marines are not the top of what you think about.”

But in just a few years, he noted, the two vessels “are going to be in the fleet for decades, defending America and representing our interests” all over the globe.

“We were two in the hole with Montana,” he said, recounting previous failed efforts to count a USS Montana as part of the nation’s fleet. “We needed to get even.”

Mabus said the submarines cost about $2 billion apiece, but the nation is getting 10 of them for $19 billion. “It’s kind of like having one of those punch cards,” he joked. “Buy nine submarines and get the 10th one free.”

Because of competition and cost-containment improvements, he said the price tag of the littoral combat ships, which patrol waters close to shore and can serve humanitarian missions, has been reduced from $548 million apiece to $337 million.

Mabus praised the efforts of Tester’s wife, Sharla, who will be a sponsor of the USS Billings and plans to be present when the submarine is commissioned.

As each new captain takes charge of that ship, he said, she will be among the captain’s first telephone contacts.

“May God bless those who sail on the USS Montana and on the USS Billings,” said Mabus, himself a former naval officer, ambassador and governor of Mississippi.

Mayor Tom Hanel, who introduced Mabus, told the crowd they were about “to experience the making of history in the city of Billings, state of Montana and the United States of America. To those who paid the ultimate sacrifice,” the mayor told the crowd, “this day is for you.”

Bullock thanked Mabus for “making up for the failures of history” with his Wednesday announcement.

“This celebration should make everyone in Billings and Montana proud,” Bullock said, calling the new vessels “enduring reminders of the service and sacrifice” made by “generations of Montanans” who “have always been first in line to volunteer for service. It’s part of our DNA.”

Tester praised the naming of the USS Montana because, like Montanans, “you know it will be dependable and up to the task.” If the two vessels “are anything like their namesakes, they’ll serve this nation for decades,” Tester said.

With his wife as its sponsor, the USS Billings “will be one tough ship,” he said, “and believe me, I speak from experience.”

Zack Gambill, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke’s director of veterans services, read a letter from Zinke, a 23-year Navy SEAL, in Zinke’s absence.

“I know the power of these ships and boats, as well as their importance to the U.S. Navy’s mission,” Zinke wrote.

Montana’s lone Member of Congress called it appropriate that the vessels be named to honor Billings and Montana “because, like the people of Montana, they are resilient, versatile, help their neighbors in times of need, and these are true warriors, like the people of the nearby Crow Nation.”

Following the ceremony, as she waited to greet Mabus, Cathy Evans of Billings, president of the VFW Post 6774 Auxiliary, said the event gave her goosebumps and made her heart flutter.

“I learned a lot today” about Navy operations and military pride, she said. “It’s not something I had thought about a lot.”

Before boarding a military jet that would take him to Ames, Iowa, where he would announce the naming of the USS Iowa Wednesday afternoon, Mabus told an impromptu press conference that U.S. sailors are sometimes “the only Americans that foreigners will ever see.” Those stepping off the USS Montana, he said, will have the chance to tell those people they meet what they know and admire about the Treasure State.

While his own naval service was decades ago, that service continues to inform his work in the Navy’s top job, Mabus said.

“I know what it’s like to go to sea on an extended deployment,” he said. The commitment that sailors and marines give when they agree to serve, he said, “is the edge we have, and nobody can match our edge.”

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