Naming Ship in Honor of Chattanooga Shooting Victims Could Take Years

Marine Corps Sgt. DeMonte R. Cheeley receives the Purple Heart for injuries from a terrorist attack in Chattanooga, Tenn. on July 16, 2015. Five other servicemen were killed in the attack by a lone gunman. (Marine Corps photo)
Marine Corps Sgt. DeMonte R. Cheeley receives the Purple Heart for injuries from a terrorist attack in Chattanooga, Tenn. on July 16, 2015. Five other servicemen were killed in the attack by a lone gunman. (Marine Corps photo)

WASHINGTON -- It took just five months for the Navy to award the Purple Heart to the five servicemen slain in a terrorist attack in Chattanooga last summer.

Getting a Navy ship named in their honor is a bit more complicated and could take a lot longer, possibly years.

Congress members from Tennessee and Georgia formally asked Navy Secretary Ray Mabus last week to name an "appropriate naval vessel" the USS Chattanooga in honor of the five shooting victims.

"In the wake of this tragedy, we believe it is appropriate for the US Navy to honor the legacy of those who lost their lives," the lawmakers wrote in a letter sent to Mabus on March 18.

Both of Tennessee's US senators -- Republicans Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor -- signed the letter. So did US Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican whose congressional district includes Chattanooga, and US Rep. Tom Graves, a Georgia Republican whose district is just across the state line.

"This would not be the first vessel to bear the name of our great city," Fleischmann said. "There is no doubt, however, that following last year's tragic attack on Department of Navy personnel, the name will transcend current naming conventions by becoming a symbol of bravery and sacrifice."

The Navy said late last week it had not seen the letter from the lawmakers, but that the request would be added to the list Mabus reviews each time he has a ship to name.

"We get a great many requests, and there are only a certain number of ships that are named after cities," said Capt. Patrick McNally, a Navy spokesman.

Mabus "is always grateful that communities advocate for their city to have a ship named in honor," McNally said. "The Navy enjoys great support from namesake cities and states, and it helps connect the Navy to the American public."

The naming of a ship rests with the Navy secretary -- in this case, Mabus. But secretaries also can solicit ideas and recommendations from other parties, such as the Chief of Naval Operations or the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

It's not uncommon for Congress members to suggest ship names or for communities to ask that a vessel be named in their honor. In fact, the Chattanooga City Council and the Tennessee General Assembly have both passed separate resolutions supporting the naming of the next eligible ship the USS Chattanooga.

The request followed last summer's attacks, when a gunman -- Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez -- opened fire on a US Military Recruiting Station and a Navy and Marine Corps Operational Support Center in the East Tennessee city.

Killed were Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, Sgt. Carson Holmquist, Lance Cpl. Squire "Skip" Wells and Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith.

Rules for giving certain types of names to certain types of ships have evolved over time, according to a report the Congressional Research Service prepared for Congress in 2012 and updated last January.

Attack submarines, for example, were once named for fish, then later for cities, and most recently for states, the report said.

Littoral combat ships -- a class of relatively small surface vessels intended for operations close to shore -- were at first named for mid-tier cities, small towns and other communities. The rules have since been adjusted to allow the vessels to bear the name of regionally important US cities and communities.

Chattanooga would certainly fit into that category. But, as the congressional report noted, there have been numerous exceptions to the ship-naming rules dating all the way back to the earliest days of the republic. So it's possible a different kind of ship could be designated the USS Chattanooga.

The Navy has a number of ships coming online in the next few years that will be needing a name. While there is no time set for assigning a name, the process is customarily done before a ship is christened, the congressional report said.

Regardless of the timing, the lawmakers who wrote to Mabus think naming a ship the USS Chattanooga is appropriate.

"The men we lost in the deadly terror attack in Chattanooga exemplify the very best that America has to offer, and we should find appropriate ways to honor their legacy," Corker said.

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