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The event comes just months before the ship’s 29th commissioning anniversary. Hundreds gathered in the August heat to celebrate the ship’s distinguished history and military service. Capt. Constantine Xefteris, Vella Gulf’s first commanding officer, went back to the beginning, addressing the many plankowners on hand.
“In 1993, every officer, every chief, every Sailor wanted to be on an Aegis cruiser,” said Xefteris. “It was the finest, most lethal ship in the world. Aegis cruisers set the standard for performance and everyone knew it.”
Following several Xefteris sea stories illuminating the ship’s early days, Rear Adm. Brendan McLane, commander, Naval Surface Forces Atlantic, lauded the crews, both current and former, for their hard work, dedication and setting the standard over the years.
“In 2020 the Vella Gulf crew completed perhaps the most challenging deployment of the ship’s career, deploying to the Middle East and Europe with the USS Eisenhower Strike Group during Covid,” said McLane.
“The crew spent 205 days underway,” he continued. “Vella Gulf’s crew proved their mettle on that deployment, embodying self-sufficiency, grit and warrior toughness by staying on station, despite the immense challenges. Nobody came out. Nobody left.
“As we enter an era of strategic competition, the example and lessons of Vella Gulf will guide us in meeting the challenges.”
Vella Gulf’s current Commanding Officer, Capt. Mike P. Desmond, spoke of the powerful bond between Sailors and their ships and the lives forged aboard. His words resonated with the audience as they bade farewell to the cruiser.
“Decommissioning conjures up a broad spectrum of emotions, as different as the backgrounds of the Sailors who have called Vella Gulf home away from home,” said Desmond. “Vella Gulf was as temperamental as can be, but when all systems were operating as designed, she was perhaps the most reliable, capable and lethal warship on the planet.”
The ceremony atmosphere was one of fond remembrance as Desmond shared a compilation of stories and memories created over Vella Gulf’s nearly three decades of service, inviting shared laughter from the crews and their families.
Plank owner and retired Chief Warrant Officer William Calhoun was sad but happy to be witness to his ship’s final moments in commissioned service, having been there at the beginning.
“You work hard and do everything you need to do and then when you finally get to see it sail and go out there it’s great,” said Calhoun. “The people that you meet onboard doing the rigorous work of bringing it to life are fantastic. That’s an experience you would like everyone to go through.
“The decommissioning part is the sad part but also joyous, as well, because you get to reconnect. It’s like a family reunion.”
Sailors from all eras of the ship’s life were on hand to see their ship decommissioned. Cryptologic Technician (Collection) 1st class Federick Bickleman was proud to have served aboard.
“Decommissioning ceremonies give former crew members the chance to come together and celebrate the deployments and the yard periods, all aspects of the ship’s life,” said Bickleman. “I served aboard four and a half years, did three deployments and I wouldn’t change a thing. It means a lot to me.”
Vella Gulf was built at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss., and commissioned in Norfolk, Va., Sept. 18, 1993.
The ship was named in commemoration of the World War II Battle of Vella Gulf, which was fought in the area surrounding the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean from Aug. 6-7, 1943. The battle saw six American destroyers successfully disrupt the Imperial Japanese Navy’s supply lines without taking a single casualty or damage from enemy fire. It was a decisive victory for the United States.
The Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser is the second U.S. Navy warship to be named for the battle following the Commencement Bay-class escort carrier USS Vella Gulf (CVE 111). The first Vella Gulf was commissioned on April 9, 1945 and with the war over, the ship decommissioned on Aug. 9, 1946.
Over its 29 years of service, the cruiser has been an important part of America’s national defense strategy.
In 1999, the crew participated in NATO strikes against Serbia in an effort to stop government-sanctioned human rights abuses against ethnic Albanians in the Kosovo region.
In 2001, Vella Gulf answered the call, taking part in the national effort to provide homeland defense for the country’s northeastern region immediately following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The crew supported air traffic control efforts as the air defense commander, controlling protocols for an area spanning from Boston to Washington D.C.
In 2009, the ship led a task force responsible for curbing anti-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa. During its mission, CG 72 responded to a distress call from the merchant vessel Polaris, a 420-foot tanker that was under attack. Vella Gulf’s intervention led to the pirates arrest and made the region safer for shipping.
In 2017, the Vella Gulf joined Carrier Strike Group 11. During its assignment, it supported strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
The ceremony marks the first of five cruisers set to be decommissioned this year. Inactivation is a normal part of a warship’s lifecycle. After decommissioning, the ship is slated to be towed Oct. 11 to the Navy’s Inactive Ship’s facility in Philadelphia, Pa., where it will be in a Logistical Support Asset status.
“She has served her crews and her nation well, and rightfully takes her place among the ships that, for well over 200 years, have played an indispensable role in protecting the United States of America and serving her strategic interests across the world.” concluded Desmond.
“This ship and her crews will forever share a proud and lasting legacy.”
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