First lady Michelle Obama was in Connecticut Saturday to help the Navy commission its newest and most advanced fast-attack submarine, the USS Illinois.
The first lady is an Illinois native and the submarine's sponsor, and she has participated in the keel laying and christening of the 13th Virginia-class vessel.
On Saturday, she praised the submarine's crew for its hard work, highlighted the sacrifice military families make, and offered praise to the men and women who built the $2.7 billion boat.
"Two years ago ... this boat was in four components spread over three states," Obama told about 2,500 people gathered on a pier at the Naval Submarine Base New London. "Today it's the most advanced ship in the Navy, a ship that's as complicated to operate as the space shuttle, a ship that can carry out any kind of critical mission from search and rescue to scientific research."
She said she was "beyond proud" to be associated with the ship and its crew, and called them "the very definition of excellence."
"Thank you for giving me the incredible privilege of being associated with you and with your families and with the Illinois for the rest of my life," she said. "I will continue to keep you in my prayers every single day and keep you in my thoughts, and know that you have a sponsor that cares deeply."
As sponsor, it was Obama's job to give the Illinois' crew its first order: "Officers and crew of the USS Illinois, man our ship and bring her to life." And with that the sub's 132 crew members ran aboard as a Navy band played "Anchors Aweigh."
The USS Illinois (SSN 786) will remain at Groton for about a year as it undergoes a shakedown by its crew and staff from nearby Electric Boat, which did the final assembly of the ship.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John M. Richardson, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, were among the dignitaries who attended Saturday's ceremony.
Richardson talked about the special role that Groton plays in the U.S. submarine force and said submariners consider the city to be their second home. He praised the Illinois' crew and the men and woman at Electric Boat, Newport News Shipbuilding and Huntington Ingalls Industries, who built the Illinois and other Navy ships. Electric Boat and Newport News alternate deliveries of Virginia-class subs.
"I truly wish that I could bring every American through those ship yards to see the amazing things this country can do when it puts its mind to it," Richardson said, adding that it is remarkable how the workers use thousands of tons of steel to build ships with a precision that can be measured in the thousandths of an inch.
The Illinois, Richardson said, "is a ship that will haunt adversaries and give confidence to those who value liberty."
Blumenthal said the people who build submarines are as critical to the nation's defense as those who serve aboard them. He called the Illinois "a technological wonder that will help keep us safe and safeguard our freedom."
Courtney said the Illinois was the first sub to result from Congress' 2007 decision to increase submarine production to two a year. The result has been hundreds of new jobs in southeast Connecticut.
"As president and Mrs. Obama's time in the White House draws to an end, it is worth noting that this submarine, our ship yard, this base and this entire region have been part of an under-recognized legacy of President Obama and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus," Courtney said. "As the congressman who represents this district ... I want to publicly thank President Obama in the presence of the first lady for making such a big, positive difference to the Navy and this region."
Malloy, who received a 19-gun salute during the ceremony, said the commissioning was a great way to celebrate the sub base's 100th anniversary. He also said the state is proud of the men and women who build submarines.
The Illinois' captain, Cmdr. Jess Porter, told his crew and the crowd assembled Saturday that the submarine is ready to perform important missions.
"I tell my crew that submarines sow chaos and indecision in the minds of their adversaries," he said. "The submarine force has not been fully unleashed since World War II, and this is a good thing. We have been used sparingly, as the destructive force inherent in these ships is immense."
Eleven more Virginia-class submarines have been authorized or are under construction. They will eventually replace Cold War-era Los Angeles-class fast attack submarines now serving with the fleet.
Construction of the Illinois began in June 2014 and the ship was delivered to the Navy on Aug. 27.
(c)2016 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)