NORFOLK, Va. — The U.S. Navy's newest ship named to honor victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks will plow the open seas under a commanding officer born and raised in the grasslands of northwest Nebraska.
Cmdr. Darren Nelson hails from Rushville, Neb., the same town Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called home for a time as a kid.
Nelson is now in charge of the USS Arlington, set to receive its commissioning today at Naval Station Norfolk.
The Arlington is both powerful warship and living memorial, a tribute to those who died when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon nearly 12 years ago.
On the eve of the Arlington officially joining the fleet today, that special role was on the minds of both captain and crew.
“We carry the spirit of those 184 people that died that day,” Nelson said. “We know why we got our name. Every crew member that shows up ... learns and understands that 184 people gave their life for us.”
Nelson has three children, including a daughter who was born on Sept. 11, 1996.
More than 5,000 people are expected to attend today's emotionally charged ceremony, including many of the emergency personnel who first responded to the attack and loved ones of those who perished.
Nelson said pieces from the Pentagon wreckage will be kept on board as the ship goes about its missions. Other reminders of the tragedy can be found as well, such as the stars along certain pathways — one star for each person who died.
The Arlington is one of three Navy ships named to honor the victims of 9/11. Each is named for the counties where the planes crashed.
The USS New York was commissioned in 2009 and already completed its first deployment. The third, to be named for Somerset County, Pa., is under construction. They are amphibious warfare ships, commonly called “gators” in the naval community.
The Arlington will be tasked with transporting sailors, Marines and special forces all over the world and, potentially, landing them on hostile beaches.
The ship can perform missions from humanitarian assistance to anti-piracy operations.
It also has the ability “to stand off somebody's coast and say, 'Don't mess with us,'” as Nelson put it bluntly.
The 24,900-ton ship is 684 feet long and can hold up to 800 Marines and nearly 400 sailors.
Its cavernous belly can be flooded with water to allow direct launches of amphibious assault vehicles packed with heavily armed Marines.
Its flight deck accommodates the plane-helicopter hybrid Osprey, as well as a variety of attack and transport helicopters. Its communications capabilities rival that of an aircraft carrier.
On Friday, crew members said they were well-aware of the ship's somber significance.
Chief Master-at-Arms Cindy Latherow said it's a great honor to serve on a 9/11 ship. She's from Pennsylvania, not far from where United Airlines' Flight 93 crashed in Somerset County.
The commissioning ceremony starts at 11:30 a.m. CDT and can be viewed by clicking here. It will feature a slate of VIPs, with Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, delivering the keynote address.
Joyce Rumsfeld, wife of former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, is the ship's sponsor and, in a Navy tradition, will give the order to “Man our ship and bring her to life!”
Nelson will have plenty of family and friends there for the occasion. This is his first command. Previously he was the executive officer on the USS Gunston Hall, a dock-landing ship.
As a younger man, Nelson dreamed of flying military jets and looked into joining the Air Force, but spots were not readily available.
The movie “Top Gun” had just come out and glamorized hot-shot Navy pilots, so he figured he could fly jets for the Navy. He earned his commission through ROTC at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln but wasn't selected for aviation.
He has no regrets.
“I've had an absolute blast driving ships around for the last 19 years,” Nelson said.
Those back in Rushville are proud to see Nelson taking command of such an important ship. His mother, Joan, says she's been asked about the ceremony when out getting coffee.
Nelson likes to point out that every man, woman and child in Rushville, 890 of them, could fit aboard the Navy's newest ship.
“We might not have room for the cows and horses,” Nelson adds with a chuckle.
His crew is certainly aware of his Nebraska heritage and joked about his passion for the Cornhuskers.
One sailor said there is a rule on board the ship — no trash talking on the Monday following a Nebraska loss.
Tuesday's fine, however.
Nelson told one reporter he might have to fly a Nebraska flag on certain Saturdays.
“I might have to find that and intercept it,” said Latherow, a Penn State supporter.
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