GAETA, Italy — The USS Mount Whitney officially assumed its new role as the 6th Fleet flagship during a formal, broad-ranging ceremony Friday, taking over duties from the USS La Salle.

The change also brings new roles for the recently arrived Mount Whitney, Vice Adm. H.G. Ulrich III, 6th Fleet commander, told Stars and Stripes before the ceremony.

In addition to its normal role for 6th Fleet and NATO Striking and Support Forces Southern Europe, Ulrich said the Mount Whitney will be available for duties with the U.S. European Command, if needed, and will also become the NATO Response Force flagship in July.

The NRF’s rotating headquarters moves to Lisbon, Portugal, from Naples on July 15, where it will remain until July 2006. Ulrich already lives and works in Lisbon as commander of the NATO Joint Command, one of the many “hats” given to him as 6th Fleet commander

The ceremony also marked the official move of the 6th Fleet staff from its hillside Gaeta headquarters to its new facility at Naval Support Activity Naples, about 60 miles to the southeast.

Last year, 6th Fleet and the London-based Naval Forces Europe headquarters started moving to Naples as the two staffs began integrating as one organization.

Finally, the ceremony served as an opportunity for military and civilian officials to say goodbye to the La Salle, which departed Friday evening for Norfolk, Va., where it will be decommissioned.

“This is a necessary change and one that is good for the Navy,” said La Salle’s commander, Capt. Herman Shelanski.

The 41-year-old vessel was the longest-serving 6th Fleet flagship, having assumed that role more than a decade earlier from the cruiser USS Belknap.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the La Salle took on the additional role of serving as a floating base for maritime interception operations of terrorist-connected shipping.

At the start of the war in Iraq, the La Salle’s staff spent nearly 60 days at sea controlling two aircraft carrier groups and one of Marine-laden amphibious assault ships.

Last year, it served NATO as part of the seaborne protection force for the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.

“From NATO exercises to anti-terrorism maritime interception operations … we’ve gone as far away as the Irish coast and the Black Sea,” Shelanski said about his time in command of La Salle. “Now it’s time to bring her back and decommission her May 27.”

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