This week Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced the 14th and last Lewis and Clark-class of dry cargo/ammunition ship to be built by the General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard in San Diego, would be named after the godfather of the Latino civil rights movement, Cesar Chavez. Chavez served in the Navy from 1944 to 1946, and upon completing his duty, returned to California where he found his calling organizing migrant farm workers who worked (many still do), in deplorable conditions and suffer abuses from employers. Chavez was awarded posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S.
California U.S. Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) voiced his opposition on grounds that other Latino service members such as fallen Marine Corps Sergeant and San Diego native Rafael Peralta be honored with this recognition.
Sergeant Peralta received the Navy Cross after saving his fellow Marines’ lives in Fallujah by smothering a grenade with his body. The Medal of Honor was not awarded after a Defense Department investigation concluded that Sergeant Peralta did not pull the grenade into his body, a conclusion which is disputed by many, including Sergeant Peralta’s unit.
In a letter to Secretary Mabus, Congressman Duncan writes, “Naming a ship after Cesar Chavez goes right along with other recent decisions by the Navy that appear to be more about making a political statement than upholding the Navy’s history and tradition.”
¿Cómo? Who’s making the political statement?
The Navy concluded that Chavez’s life work exemplified the Lewis and Clark class-cargo ships’ tradition of honoring “legendary pioneers and explorers,” such as veteran and civil rights activist Medgar Evers and Amelia Earhart, women’s rights advocate and the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Secretary Mabus says, “Cesar Chavez inspired young Americans to do what is right and what is necessary to protect our freedoms and our country. The Cesar Chavez will sail hundreds of thousands of miles and will bring support and assistance to thousands upon thousands of people. His example will live on in this great ship.”
My criticism of Congressman Hunter, an Iraq and Afghanistan War veteran and member of the House Armed Services Committee, does not stem from questioning the Navy’s decision, but how he framed his opposition. Congressman Hunter nominates Sergeant Peralta, “who showed even greater pioneering spirit” (emphasis added). Indeed, Sergeant Peralta–who gave his life in service to the country–deserves more recognition than the prestigious Navy Cross. But this framework creates a competition among veterans, much like “American Idol” or “The Apprentice.” Unfortunately, what’s at stake isn’t making it to the next round or a lucrative recording contract. Placing veterans’ records in a “You’re Fired” context diminishes their service and sacrifice–and that of their loved ones.
An interesting point came up on my Facebook page. Some of my friends noted the Navy’s decision was “odd” because Chávez was a man of peace and that the civil rights icon described his years in the Navy (which at the time was segregated) as the worst in his life. Says @Joseph, “My view: ships should be named after communities or states. If there are some left over, they should be named after individuals who have been awarded the medal of honor, posthumously. That way, no beefs … and we can name a low income housing area or something for migrants after Mr. Chavez, who is worthy of memorialization.”
@Nan disagreed, “A ship, an airport, a city should be honored to be named after Cesar Chavez. Disagree with @Joseph: low-income, migrant etc. is too narrow a view of this great person.”
No matter your political views, my Facebook friends questioned and debated the Navy’s decision thoughtfully and intelligently–and did not engage in political baiting.
Congressman Duncan served our country honorably in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the competition implicit in his opposition to naming this cargo ship after Cesar Chavez reduces veterans’ records to reality show TV. This is not worthy of his service or that of other veterans.