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SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — The Navy didn’t have to look far to find fresh leadership for the former crew of the ill-fated USS Guardian and their new mine countermeasure ship, USS Warrior.

Lt. Cmdr. Kevin McCormick, former executive officer of the Sasebo-based minesweeper USS Defender, assumed command of Sasebo’s newest addition Thursday during a dual welcoming and change-of-command ceremony. The ship’s new executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Biggs, was also recently promoted from the Sasebo-based mine ship USS Avenger, Navy officials said.

About 300 sailors, guests and their Japanese hosts turned out to officially welcome the Warrior to Sasebo and to see McCormick take the helm. As crewmembers showed off their new ship, they were happy to get back to work and put the Guardian’s unfortunate past — getting cut up at sea after grounding on a protected reef off the Philippines in January — behind them.

“It feels amazing to actually get back on board and get the crew trained back up,” said Ensign Cory Flament. He said the crew was in the process of stowing heavy equipment onboard, performing maintenance and going through safety checks to prepare for a return to sea.

“The general mood of the crew — that was a learning experience for all of us,” Flament said of the grounding. “We’ll use what we went through on that reef to propel us on.”

The Warrior arrived in Sasebo in March instead of returning to its homeport of San Diego following an eight-month deployment to Bahrain and the Navy’s 5th Fleet area of operations. The Avenger-class mine countermeasure ship was diverted to replace the Guardian.

Navy contingency plans call for four mine countermeasure ships in theater.

The ceremony commenced pier-side Thursday morning under a glaring sun in front of the polished and flag-adorned Warrior. The program featured a parade of the colors, the American and Japanese national anthems, speeches and the reading of orders. Despite the usual pomp and circumstance of change-of-command ceremonies, the Guardian was never far from the minds of those in attendance.

“You triumphed in keeping one another safe in conditions where lesser men would have failed and we would surely have lost lives to the cold and merciless sea,” Rear Adm. Jeffrey Harley, commander of Amphibious Force 7th Fleet, also known as Task Force-76, told the Warrior’s new crew.

“Your indomitable spirit, your faith in each other and your ship, your tireless actions to prevent damage to a World Heritage Site, your fearless actions in the face of darkness and cascading material casualties illuminated a new standard of courage and reflected great credit upon your nation, your Navy and each and every one of you.”

McCormick then took to the podium, saying he was “humbled to serve as your captain.”

No one was injured when the Guardian ran aground around 2:25 a.m. on Jan. 17 while transiting the Sulu Sea. The 79 crewmembers were removed the next day as a safety precaution.

Over the following two months, the 224-foot ship slid around on Tubbataha Reef, damaging the World Heritage Site and causing hull breaches. The ship was deemed a complete loss, and a $45 million salvage effort began Feb. 22 and ended March 29.

The Guardian was stricken from the naval registry on Feb. 15 and decommissioned at a ceremony in Sasebo on March 6. Last month, the Guardian’s former commander, Lt. Cmdr. Mark Rice, and three others were relieved of their duties following an initial investigation into the grounding.

The grounding sparked protests outside the U.S. Embassy, and Philippine officials have called for the U.S. Navy and government to pay $1.4 million in fines.

The Navy investigation has not yet been approved for release, a 7th Fleet spokesman said this week.

After Thursday’s ceremonies, McCormick pledged to sustain the security commitment to Japan and said his sailors were ready to embark on the next chapter.

“This is an amazing crew,” McCormick told Stars and Stripes. “They’re eager. They’re ready.”

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
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