Ray Mabus, the longest-serving secretary of the Navy in 100 years, bid farewell to the post in a tribute ceremony at Marine Barracks Washington on Friday morning, attended by the heads of the Navy and Marine Corps and other dignitaries.
As Mabus reflected on a tenure of nearly eight years that included dramatic and controversial changes, he warned that trying to reverse some of the moves, particularly those focused on transitioning to alternative energy sources, would be bad for the Department of the Navy and even put lives at risk.
"Going back to the way we operated before would be equivalent to stopping the use of nuclear, or returning to sails," Mabus said. "Going back would mean sacrificing a significant advantage, rendering our forces more vulnerable, and recklessly risking the lives of sailors and Marines."
Mabus raised some hackles on Capitol Hill in 2012 when he proposed a demonstration of his "Great Green Fleet" proposal, in which ships would sail during a major exercise, Rim of the Pacific, using alternative biofuels. The batch of algae-based biofuel purchased by the Navy for the exercise cost $12 million for 450,000 gallons, working out to $26 per gallon, much more than traditional fuel costs.
But Mabus would realize his vision this year, when the John C. Stennis carrier strike group deployed using a beef tallow-based drop-in alternative fuel blend for just over $2 per gallon.
Speaking at the ceremony, Mabus' wife Lynne acknowledged the energy reforms as part of his legacy, and said he and the family had progressed far from his early roots as a tree farmer in Mississippi.
"I thought I was marrying Mr. Green Jeans," she joked. "Instead, I got Mr. Green Fleet."
Mabus also defended his advocacy of wide-ranging social reforms within the Department of the Navy aimed at making the services more diverse, from supporting the service of women in all combat roles and the right of gay troops to serve openly to efforts to dramatically increase maternity leave to retain more women, and, controversially, to change uniforms and job titles to emphasize gender neutrality.
"The protecting force must be reflective of the nation being protected," Mabus said. "A diverse force is a stronger force. Not diversity for diversity's sake, but diversity of background and experience and perspective. A force that is too like in [its] thinking becomes predictable, and a predictable force becomes a defeatable force."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, suggested he would scrutinize some of these recent changes in a statement hailing the Navy's December decision to reverse an unpopular job titles overhaul.
"A number of other recent policy changes also appear to have been made with shallow analysis and unnecessary urgency," McCain in the statement. "I look forward to working with the next Secretary of Defense and service secretaries to review these personnel policy changes and roll them back where necessary and appropriate."
Speaking at the ceremony, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller credited Mabus with rebuilding the size of the Navy's fleet from a low near 270 ships to 308 by 2021, and keeping retention and troop morale high.
"He reversed the declines in both shipbuilding and aircraft but, more important, fired up those shipbuilding production lines, positioning the Navy to surpass 308 ships … and setting up the nation to build the Navy that it needs," Richardson said. "... I will always remember this as a time when our secretary bolstered our values of honor, courage and commitment."
Ray and Lynne Mabus and their three daughters departed the ceremony in a walk-off set to a song that reflected the 1.3 million miles Mabus had traveled around the world and to war zones to visit troops during his tenure: "I've been everywhere," by Johnny Cash.