NORFOLK (NNS) -- Following more than 46 years of honorable naval service, the afloat forward staging base (interim) USS Ponce (AFSB(I) 15) was decommissioned during a time-honored ceremony, Oct. 14.
Commander, Naval Surface Force Atlantic, Rear Adm. Jesse A. Wilson Jr., provided keynote remarks. Other notable speakers included Commander, Military Sealift Command, Rear Adm. Dee L. Mewbourne; Commander, Naval Amphibious Force, Task Force 51/5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Brig. Gen. Francis L. Donovan; Maritime Administration Associate Administrator for Strategic Sealift, Kevin M. Tokarski; and the ship's commanding officer, Capt. Christopher Wells.
Wilson highlighted the significance of the ceremony and ship's significant contributions to national security.
"It is truly an honor to participate in this momentous and time honored naval tradition, as we remember the accomplishments, warfighting attitude, contributions and legacy of the USS Ponce and its Sailors over the last 46 years," said Wilson.
During the ceremony, Wells spoke about the ship's naval service and recent mission.
"After exceptional service to the Navy and nation for nearly half a century, it is bittersweet that the "Proud Lion" has returned to its homeport here in Norfolk for one last event, its decommissioning," said Wells.
"It is quite an honor for me and also for the whole hybrid crew, made up of dedicated, professional Sailors and civilian mariners, to take Ponce to sea and bring it home for the last time. I can't praise this team enough for the job they have done these last years, aboard this aged warrior, in the hot and hostile seas in Fifth Fleet."
The ship, commissioned in 1971, was the 12th and last ship in the Austin-class of amphibious transport dock ships. In 2012, the ship was refitted as an afloat forward staging base (interim). After being forward deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operation for the past five years, the "Proud Lion" returned to its homeport in September and was decommissioned Oct. 14.
Named for the Puerto Rican city of the same name, Ponce served mostly in the Atlantic Fleet, completing 27 deployments in the North Atlantic, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf.
Originally slated for decommissioning in 2011, the "Proud Lion" was refitted and reclassified, based on the USS Kitty Hawk's (CV 63) role as an afloat special operations staging base during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. And, she was outfitted with a joint Navy - Military Sealift Command (MSC) crew.
Forward deployed for the past five years, the crew provided vital support to U.S. and allied forces in the U.S. 5th Fleet and Central Command, primarily during mine countermeasures operations, but also in international maritime command and control roles. In doing so, the crew launched, recovered and sustained multiple aircraft, riverine and other vessels.
Their actions led to the ship and its crew being awarded the Combat Action Ribbon, presented to Wells during the ceremony by Donovan.
"In the Navy and Marine Corps, one award clearly stands out," said Donovan. "It is the award that recognizes service in combat against an enemy."
"I am extremely proud, honored and humbled to award Ponce her first Combat Action Ribbon, in 46 years of service. They were well trained, knew their ship and her combat systems and were well led by a superior Navy captain and MSC master. They were ready. They represented the absolute best of our nation operating at the very tip of the spear."
The "Proud Lion" was relieved in U.S 5th Fleet by the expeditionary sea base ship USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB 3), the first ship built specifically for the purpose of serving as an afloat, forward-staging base.
In 2014, Ponce successfully deployed and operated the laser weapon system (LaWS) for the first time. This 30 kilowatt cutting-edge weapon significantly expands the Navy's viability of directed every weapons in an operational environment, something which will offer increased levels of precision and speed for naval warfighter at a decreased cost.
"You heeded the call of duty and had the remarkable opportunity to not just witness history, but to make history," said Wilson as he highlighted Ponce's commitment to innovation.
"I cannot be more proud of your accomplishments, what you achieved together and of your unyielding warfighting spirit. This ship will always be linked to the American resolve. The legacy of this ship will live on in our Sailors, our Marine brothers and sisters, and our civilian mariners."
During its 46-year journey, Ponce and its crews were lauded for their outstanding service, earning numerous individual and unit awards. Ponce now joins the inactive fleet and will be dismantled.
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