NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — First Lady Michelle Obama made her mark on the Illinois (SSN 786) on Monday afternoon at Electric Boat’s Quonset Point Facility by initialing a metal plate that will be mounted on the submarine, the second vessel to be named after her home state.
She joins Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton as first ladies who have sponsored submarines.
“I am beyond excited, and I am truly honored and I couldn’t be more proud that I have my daughters Malia and Sasha, who joined me as maids of honor of this vessel,” Obama said.
Her daughters could not attend the keel-laying ceremony because they had school tests, she said, but “know that you have three very solid Chicago girls who are excited to support this vessel.”
Obama signed the metal plate with chalk, and Michael R. Macomber, who has worked for EB for 37 years, welded her initials into the metal plate. The metal plate will be attached to the submarine at a future date. Macomber said he spent weeks preparing for this moment for fear that he would get her initials wrong or that the machine would malfunction.
Obama’s responsibility to the ship won’t end until 2050 because the Virginia-class nuclear submarines have a 33-year lifespan, said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., one of the guest speakers.
“That is a profound commitment to the men and women of the U.S. Navy,” Courtney said.
The Navy is lucky to have a person with such a strong spirit to guide them through their journeys, he said.
The sponsor is the proud daughter of the prairie state and helped “our sailors and their families and our military families of all services” immeasurably, said Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus.
Obama started the ceremony by saying: “This is really cool. I mean come on. This is so nice.”
She said she has sponsored a U.S. Coast Guard cutter before but that this was a whole different “ball game.”
“I have heard that you are some of the most skilled shipbuilders we have around, so I am confident that this is going to be an outstanding vessel,” she said. “I know you are going to put your heart and soul into this vessel.”
She thanked the crew members who as Navy service members are often part of the “silent service.”
“I was one of those Americans who didn’t really know much about the sacrifice of military families like yours,” she said.
This type of work puts an emotional toil on spouses, and children, who have to change schools every few years, and the sailors who go weeks without Skype or phone calls with loved ones while hundreds of feet under water, she said.
“We have no idea that for months at a time you don’t see the sun or breathe fresh air,” Obama said.
The ceremony took place in front of more than 1,000 people in EB’s Bay 3, where the Illinois, the Indiana (SSN 789) and the South Dakota (SSN 790) are under construction. The facility currently has eight submarines under construction.
Traditionally, keel-laying ceremonies were held when the first timber was laid. Today, the ceremony has changed to reflect modern materials and technology.
Macomber, the welder, has worked on more than 55 Ohio-class, Los Angeles-class, Seawolf-class and Virginia-class submarines.
He said as a “blue-collar” worker, it was an honor to weld the metal plate for Obama.
“It was like a feather in my cap in my career,” he said.
The 377-foot Virginia-class submarine is the 13th in its class. The Virginia class submarines are known for their ability to dominate the open ocean and the littoral zone. They are capable of anti-submarine, anti-surface ship and counter-mine warfare and surveillance, Special Operations and covert strike missions.
Lawmakers from Connecticut and Rhode Island attended the ceremony to show their support, including Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I.