Traditionally, secretaries of the Navy get the honor of naming warships in America's Naval fleet. But Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is running into stiff opposition over his latest pick: the late Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha.
"Both in uniform and in the halls of Congress, Chairman Murtha dedicated his life to serving his country both in the Marine Corps and Congress," Mabus said last spring following Murtha's death. "His unwavering support of our sailors and Marines, and in particular of our wounded warriors, was well known and deeply appreciated." Murtha was awarded two Purple Hearts during his service in Vietnam and served Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District from 1974 until his death last year.
But Mabus' praise for Murtha is falling on the deaf ears of a number of former sailors and Marines who say naming a vessel for Murtha simply rewards a lawmaker who called for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq during the height of war's toughest fighting. Many veterans also point out that Murtha was also implicated in bribery schemes and engaged in much-criticized pork-barrel politics. Last Friday, one of Murtha's former aides was sentenced to serve 27 months in prison for evading limits on campaign donations. Additionally, Murtha was named as an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the FBI's 1980 Abscam sting.
What's worse, sailors and Marines say, in 2006, Murtha claimed that Marines in the Iraqi city of Haditha had "killed innocent civilians in cold blood."
"Name a ship after a congressman who disgraced himself by rushing to judge that fellow Marines had committed murder in Iraq? Can you be serious?"one retired Marine major general remarked to TIME.
Facebook groups have cropped up online protesting the Navy Secretary's decision and more than 200 people voiced their complaints in comments to the Navy's announcement. Not a single person voiced support for the decision, TIME notes. "As active duty lieutenant commander, I would resign my commission before accepting orders to this misnamed ship," one officer posted anonymously on the Navy's website.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has voiced her support of "our dear Jack" and a USS Murtha:
“Whether on the battlefield, or on the bedside, he thanked them for their courage, listened to their concerns, and asked them for comment — and he answered their needs, and responded to their calls, whether it was for body armor, up-armored vehicles… radios, you name it,” Pelosi said. “In those minutes [together], he bonded with them especially because he would share his own personal military service with them, and cared for them as a father. They knew it, and they returned his respect.”
But from sailors' point of view, the story of the 19-term congressman is a very different account. On the Navy's official website, many have decried the decision to name a ship after Murtha as a "slap in the face," "inappropriate," and "an absolute disgrace."
“The naming of LPD 26 after John Murtha is inappropriate,” wrote David Martin. “There [are] many men and women with greater records of valor and service to the country who deserve the honor of having a warship named in their memory before John Murtha has a warship [named] in his honor. He made sure there was an airport named after himself. What more does there need to be?”
In addition, letters in the January issue of the independent naval magazine Proceedings also voiced opposition.
"The Navy's scheme for naming ships, especially capital ships like carriers and subs, has become a joke," writes Douglas Pauly, recalling when carriers were named for battles, battleships for states, cruisers for cities, destroyers for people, and submarines for marine life. Traditionalists like the convenience of such categories, where knowing the name of a vessel instantly declares what kind of ship it is.
TIME notes that in naming a ship for Murtha, Mabus is breaking with the old tradition of naming a San Antonio class ship after a U.S. city. Work on the Murtha has begun and a spokesman for the Navy Secretary says Mabus has no intention of reversing his decision to honor the late congressman.
He believes that "the naming honors Congressman Murtha's lifetime of service to the Marine Corps, in Congress and to our nation." Of course, sailors and Marines, used to being ignored by the brass, are coming up with their own names for the Murtha. Right now, USS Cold Blooded Killers seems to be their top choice.