Typically, the U.S. Navy selects one sponsor to christen each new vessel with a bottle of champagne, but when the time came to christen the USNS Choctaw County, U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus decided one sponsor was not enough.
Theresa Pitts, professional development coordinator with the Starkville School District, said Mabus called on her and 27 other women he graduated with in Ackerman High School's class of 1966 to serve as sponsors for the vessel. The ship is named after three Choctaw Counties located in Alabama, Oklahoma, and Mississippi, she said, and Mabus wanted his classmates from the county he calls home to have a role in the christening.
"Eighteen (of us) actually made the trip for the christening, and he asked me to be the lead sponsor," Pitts said. "We're all sponsors; I was just fortunate enough to be asked to be the lead sponsor. Logistically, you couldn't have that many people breaking bottles of champagne."
Pitts christened the USNS Choctaw County Sept. 15 in a ceremony at the Austal shipyard in Mobile, Ala. and led her classmates in donating a collage that will reside inside the vessel throughout its service.
Pitts retired from teaching in 1996 after five years teaching in Choctaw County and several more years teaching at Overstreet School. At the ceremony, Pitts said the vessel was named after the three Choctaw Counties to honor the people of rural America for their contributions to their communities and their families. With fewer than 9,000 residents, she said, Mississippi's Choctaw County is the smallest of the three Choctaw Counties.
"Even though we were small in population ... the community we grew up in was and continues to be a leader in contributions to the state and nation," Pitts said. "Having produced two governors, a Miss America and, of course, a Secretary of (the) Navy, Choctaw County, Mississippi has (produced) caring and nurturing citizens. As sponsors of the (USNS) Choctaw County, the ladies of the class of â€™66 pledge to serve as a link between the ship's namesake and her crew. For all crews who serve the (USNS) Choctaw County in years to come, we as sponsors pledge to continue a lasting relationship with you that extends beyond this christening."
One of Pitts' fellow sponsors, Pam Miller of Sturgis, said Pitts was an excellent choice for lead sponsor, because she was the one who worked to bring her classmates together as fellow sponsors.
"She spent so much time on the phone and on e-mail trying to get classmates' locations, because we didn't have some of them," Miller said. "In years past, some of these girls (who came to the christening) could not come to our high school reunions. It was really the most fun weekend I've had in a while."
According to a release from Allison Stiller, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Ship Programs, sponsors can attend changes of command for the ship, greet it after a long deployment, and send the crew care packages or cards. Sponsors are also invited to join the Society of Sponsors of the U.S. Navy.
"A sponsor can be as involved as she wishes throughout the ship's service to our nation," Stiller says in the release. "A ship sponsor serves as a 'mom' or 'big sister' to the ship and all the crews that serve aboard (the ship) throughout (its) entire life. It is said that a sponsor imparts her spirit on the ship and the crew."
Pitts said the vessel is the second of nine Joint High Speed Vessels Austal has under contract with the U.S. Navy, and the vessel is built not only for war, but also for humanitarian aid. For this reason, she said, its coat of arms has an inscription reading "Harvest Peace; Prepare For War."
"It has really impressive technology on board. Its maneuverability is just phenomenal," Pitts said, "(but) the vessel is just aluminum. What makes the vessel come to life are the men and women that serve on that vessel. We do things (to) let people know that are on that vessel that (we) care about them."
The sponsors' collage hanging on the USNS Choctaw County brings together pictures of several city and county landmarks, Pitts said, such as the Choctaw County Courthouse, Ackerman High School, and welcome signs for both the city and county. She said she appreciates Mabus enabling her and her classmates to serve as sponsors.
"It meant so much because one of our classmates still remembers his roots, still remembers the people he grew up with," Pitts said. "He just didn't forget his roots, and he recognized all of us who grew up with him and supported him and love him dearly. I've never been through anything so moving and so grand before. It was quite a weekend for all of us, something we will be forever grateful to Secretary Mabus for making us a part of."