"Officers and crew of the USS Omaha, man our ship and bring her to life!"
With those auspicious words from ship’s sponsor Susie Buffett, the USS Omaha was officially commissioned in San Diego on February 3. The Omaha (LCS-12) is the Navy’s newest littoral combat ship, a 420-foot, 2,300-ton vessel with capabilities, operational flexibility and advanced technology that give it a distinctive, futuristic look.
"It’s the most amazing ship I’ve ever seen. It looks like something that’s come out of Star Wars," Omaha business and community leader Mike Yanney said. Yanney, a member of Buffett’s USS Omaha executive committee, served in the Army during the Korean War period, so he’s seen a ship or two. "To think of a battleship moving 55 miles per hour and literally turning on a dime; it’s just amazing. And it displaces very little water so it can go right into places other ships can’t get close to…It’s a huge compliment to American technology and American ingenuity."
"As is true of the men and women who man her, the USS Omaha is faster, smarter and more impressive than the ships during my years of service," said former Nebraska Governor and US Senator Bob Kerrey, who was also a Vietnam War-era Navy Seal.
"I call it ‘badass’ because it just looks badass," Buffett said. "It’s fast, it has all kinds of maneuvering capabilities other ships haven’t had, it can (pivot) almost in a total circle. It doesn’t go very deep into the water, so it can (operate in) much shallower water. It’s very versatile and fast and cool."
New design for the Navy
The LCS class of ships are designed to defeat "anti-access" threats such as mines, quiet diesel submarines and fast surface craft, said Rick Holdcroft, vice president of the Navy League of the United States, Nebraska Council, and president of the USS Omaha commissioning committee.
"We primarily are a blue-water navy, meaning we operate at sea in large carrier battlegroups with significant strike capability," explained Holdcroft, who is a retired Navy officer. "But of late it’s been those pesky mines and diesel submarines and patrol crafts that are causing us issues. This class of ship addresses that threat directly…It’s a new design for the Navy and I think they’ve done a great job leveraging modern techniques and concepts."
"It’s designed for the shallow water, coastal environment that is so prevalent in the Persian Gulf and hot areas of the Middle East where we’ve been for the last 20 years," Navy League Nebraska Council president/USS Omaha commissioning committee vice president Butch Kirkland added. "Being a 30-year Navy veteran, what impresses me the most about it is the engineering systems design of the ship. It’s 21st century and it’s totally different from anything the Navy has ever built before. It’s innovative and it’s a benchmark for surface ships of the future."
The Navy’s LCS program began in 2002 and has realized a significant reduction in time to acquire, design and build ships in comparison to any previous class. A total of 32 ships are planned. USS Omaha milestones prior to its official commissioning included its laying of the keel in February 2015: its launch from shipbuilder Austal USA’s shipyards in Mobile, Alabama, in November 2015; and its christening on December 19, 2015 in Mobile with Buffett smashing a bottle of champagne against the ship’s bow: "I christen thee USS Omaha! May God bless this ship and all who sail on her." Both the christening and the commissioning boasted an impressive contingent of Omahans in attendance, but a local commissioning celebration also took place at the CenturyLink Center on February 12.
Securing support and planning events
The cycle leading to the formal commissioning began when former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced the naming of the vessel in 2012, prior to construction. Mabus extended a formal request to philanthropist Susie Buffett to serve as ship’s sponsor, and following acceptance Buffett assembled a local executive committee of business and community leaders (Mike Yanney, Dale Andersen, Gary Gates, Mike Klug, Susan Morris, Beth Ochsner, Steve Seline, David Slosburg, Christine Steffen and Ruth Utman) to secure support and execute the details of the various events in collaboration with local Navy League representatives.
"The Navy League councils get involved in the commissionings when they occur in their geographical area," Kirkland said, adding that the Navy League is an organization of civilians that supports and promotes the Navy. Holdcroft and Kirkland met Buffett for the first time at the USS Omaha christening, and everyone has worked together to ensure ceremonial events go off without a hitch.
"I think to have a ship named after Omaha and to have the sponsor be Susie Buffett, it’s as good of publicity as our city can get. And seeing the way the private sector steps up to sponsor this entire event with nobody twisting anybody’s arm; it really was heartwarming to me," Yanney said. "I think to see the way the Navy League of Nebraska supports this spectacular effort is also very heartwarming."
Although the major ceremonial events are now complete, the city of Omaha will continue to have a relationship with the USS Omaha. The effort will be largely driven by Buffett in her role as ship’s sponsor, which is expected to last through the ship’s remaining years of active duty, and with support from her committee, her ship’s maids (see sidebar) and the Navy League.
"Susie will do an excellent job making sure the USS Omaha crew feel appreciation and support from Omaha," ship’s maid Susan Mullin said.
Roberta Wilhelm, another ship’s maid, said, "I look forward to assisting Susie with any special efforts she makes on behalf of the crew of the USS Omaha and their families. If she is the ‘godmother’ of the ship, I am one of her able and willing helpers. I want to support her in her efforts to let the crew know that no matter where in the world they may travel, there are Omahans thinking of them and praying for ‘fair winds and following seas.’"
The people of USS Omaha
Although some crew members hail from the Midwest, no Nebraskans currently serve on the USS Omaha, but "Over the years I’m sure someone from Nebraska or Omaha will be assigned to that ship," Kirkland said. In the meantime, some of the crew members of Omaha the ship will have the opportunity to get acquainted with Omaha the city every year.
"(The committees) have been meeting for the last couple of years, and we’re going to continue to meet a few times a year to think about things we can do, like bring crew members in for the College World Series, or Nebraska football games—different things they might think were fun," Buffett said. "And it’s not just for the crew, it’s for the crew and their families."
Led by Commander Michael Toth and Executive Officer John Barrientos, the USS Omaha has two full crews (blue and gold) of approximately 70 each.
"Omaha is manned by the finest sailors the country has to offer. They are working hard to make the city proud, and stand ready for when the nation’s call comes to preserve, protect and defend our way of life," Toth said.
Its crew members tend to be a little older than a typical Navy ship’s, which means many of the men and women aboard have spouses and families, Holdcroft said.
"You need some smart people to operate all of the computers and systems, so you tend to have more senior personnel both in the enlisted and officer ranks on the ship," he explained.
Automation also means a smaller crew, Kirkland said.
"Typically a ship that size will have 150 to 200 crew members. Omaha has 69 crew members. That’s all driven by equipment automation, and everything’s computerized. They’ve sliced the manpower required for this ship almost into two-thirds," he said.
"I served on a frigate that was about the same length and tonnage but my ship had 200 crew members assigned to it and this ship has about 70 people assigned to it. And because it’s so wide, the spaces inside are large compared to what I was used to on my frigate," Holdcroft said. "On my frigate, the berthing spaces for enlisted personnel were 40 persons to a berthing space. On this ship, they’re all in stateroom and the most in one stateroom is four. Most of them are in two-person stateroom. And they all have their own head (toilet) and shower for each stateroom. It’s a much better quality of life for them."
A ship’s sponsor is expected to cultivate ongoing connections with crew members and support them and their families, Buffett said, and in addition to her enthusiastic ship’s maids and committee, many community members and local leaders have already expressed interest.
"I’ve had people ask me how they can help support the crew," she said. "It’s been so nice to have calls from people who are saying, ‘We all want to help with this. We appreciate them and we’re thinking about them.’"
Kirkland said he’s seen other namesake cities commission a ship to great fanfare followed by a fading away of attention.
"That’s not the case with Omaha…We don’t do things in a small way here," he said. "We have a long-term plan of hosting two visits to Omaha annually: in the spring for the College World Series and in the fall around a Husker football game. These will involve four to six crew members from the USS Omaha being selected by their leadership to participate in the all-expenses paid trips to Omaha for a four-day visit here," he said. "When crew members come out here in June for the College World Series, they’re not going to be sitting out in the open field there. They’ll be in corporate boxes behind home plate. They’re going to be treated like royalty."
"The citizens of Omaha have been the most supportive and generous people I’ve had the fortune to collaborate with. They are certainly our biggest fans and it has been a pleasure to get to know some of them and visit the city," Toth said. "I would say (it’s) a relationship that welcomes the sailors as their own family, engaged in their journey and the voyages of the ship."
The crew will be hearing from Omahans year round, Buffett said, and the ideas are already flowing.
"I want to do fun things for them and let them know that we’re thinking of them and we appreciate them," Buffett said. "I ordered two boxes of every flavor of Girl Scout cookies (in March) to send to the ship. And we’re actually—me along with a group of friends—we’re knitting scarves for all of them for Christmas."
Buffett added, with a laugh: "Anyone who likes to knit is welcome to join us because we have to make at least 75 of them!"
Honoring those who serve
Through the relationship with the USS Omaha, members of the community are able to witness and honor the contributions of military personnel everywhere.
"Sponsoring the ship gives our community a unique opportunity to make some personal connections with members of our armed forces," Wilhelm said. "When I met the young men and women of the crew, I was so impressed with their talent, dedication, and intelligence."
"I have a huge amount of respect for the United States military and I think any time we can step up and support—whether it’s the Army, the Navy, the Marines or the Air Force—our country needs to be very proud of these people," Yanney said. "They’re protecting our nation and many, many times they’re risking their lives to make our country the beautiful country we have."
Navy operations are important even to landlocked Nebraska, Holdcroft said.
"On the grand scale, we take it for granted but enjoy global freedom of sea lanes. In other words, there are no countries closing straits or charging people to go through straits of the ocean," he explained. "That affects Nebraska primarily because of our exports and the agricultural economy of the United States."
"There are thousands of people all over the world protecting our rights and our freedoms and we just go along not thinking about it every day because it’s just how we’ve all grown up and how we live. You become very aware when you become involved with the people and meet them and hear about their lives and what they do," Buffett said. "It’s a huge sacrifice to do what they do, and not just for them but for their families…They’re out for months at a time and they have spouses and kids and moms and dads who are worrying about them. It’s not about me or really about the rest of us, it’s about what they’re doing.
"It’s so nice to see how many people have gotten behind this. Everybody in Omaha should be so proud of this. It’s really pretty cool."
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"I call it ‘badass’ because it just looks badass…It’s very versatile and fast and cool."
~ Susie Buffett, USS Omaha ship’s sponsor
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