BREMERTON — He has logged 1.3 million frequent-flyer miles, visited 142 countries and earned the distinction of being the longest-tenured Secretary of the Navy since World War I. So it would make sense if Ray Mabus sounded like he was ready for a vacation.
Far from it.
As President Barack Obama’s second term winds to a close, Mabus’ time as SECNAV is also reaching its end. But in a visit to Kitsap as part of his self-described “Farewell Tour” on Oct. 21, he exuded enthusiasm both for myriad accomplishments and milestones reached — and also for the greatly expanded role Kitsap County and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard will be asked to play in the coming decades.
“I leave knowing that our future will be as successful as our storied past,” Mabus told a gathering of senior Naval officers, local elected officials and prominent citizens at the Kitsap Conference Center.
Possibly the most important of those initiatives will be rebuilding of the Navy’s global fleet. With budget resolutions, sequestrations and a sitting congress determined to cut budgets and hold down costs, the depleted Navy fell under the federal budget axe. Over the next decade, the Navy fleet shrunk considerably.
But with an increasingly restless China, growing turmoil in the Persian Gulf, erratic leadership in nuclear-capable North Korea and now even the possible departure of a longtime ally, the Philippines, there is a growing recognition in Washington D.C. that the Navy will need to re-constitute the fleet — and that PSNS will be a key West Coast presence in the Pacific Rim geopolitics of the future.
Part of that will come from $18 billion worth of Virginia-class submarines, many of which will be built right here. A considerably more aggressive hiring movement will get underway. In the near future, Mabus said, 60 percent of the global fleet will be based in the Pacific.
Along with rebuilding infrastructure, “We need to hire enough people,” Mabus said. “We ran our equipment so hard, it took longer to overhaul vessels.”
In fact, that process has already begun. Mabus spoke with pride of bringing 86 vessels under contract, and estimated the current fleet of 278 will grow to more than 300 by 2021.
But Mabus also talked about initiatives that reflect society’s evolving attitudes. Some, of course, are controversial in the tradition-bound world of the U.S. Navy. He opened all areas of Navy service to women, expanded maternity leave and began the overhaul of the Navy’s labyrinthine rating system.
Mabus continued the tradition of naming ships after war heroes and prominent politicians, but also opened that honor to a group he called “human-rights heroes,” which included civil rights activist and now-Congressman John Lewis, farmworkers’ advocate Cesar Chavez, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and gay-rights activist Harvey Milk.
All of these changes will be left to the next president’s new appointment as SECNAV to implement. In the meantime, Mabus isn’t yet sure of plans for the next phase of a life lived deeply.
“The first thing I need to do is find someone who is willing to hire me,” he laughed.
Mark Briant is a reporter for the Central Kitsap Reporter and Bremerton Patriot. He can be reached at email@example.com.