First Lady, Sailors Celebrate PCU Illinois' Keel Laying

Kingstown, New Jersey - First Lady Michelle Obama's initials were welded onto a metal plate as Sailors from Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Illinois (SSN 786) looked on during a keel-laying ceremony for the new Virginia-class submarine, today.

Obama joined Navy leaders, shipyard personnel and crew families in celebrating the ongoing construction of the Navy's 13th Virginia-class submarine during an event at the Quonset Point facility for General Dynamics Electric Boat.

Three-quarters of the ship's construction is complete, said Adm. John Richardson, the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program director.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus also participated in the event and served as the keynote speaker.

"This vessel whose keel we lay today will be the most advanced ship in the world, its technology absolutely unmatched," said Mabus.

Obama was named, by Mabus, as the ship's sponsor. The metal plate with the First Lady's initials will later be mounted on the submarine, in keeping with Navy tradition.

"I am honored and humbled to be putting my initials to this new submarine with an exceptional crew like this one," said Obama.

"I am here today, not just as a representative of my family but, as a representative of a grateful nation," Obama continued. "I am going to do my very best to honor your service by being a really good sponsor."

Illinois will become the Navy's second vessel to bear the name of the First Lady's home state once commissioned.

The pre-commissioning unit currently includes a crew of more than 100 Sailors, with others scheduled to arrive through the summer. By August, leaders expect the crew to reach its full strength of about 140 officers and enlisted personnel.

The vessel presently has three crew members from the nation's 21st state, including Machinist's Mate 1st Class Robert Schmitz of Fayetteville, Ill., who joined the Navy 12 years ago. Schmitz said Midwestern values are essential as a submariner.

"Honesty and a strong work ethic are vital to being successful on a submarine," said Schmitz.

Mokena, Ill., native Electronics Technician 2nd Class Scott Wiscons reflected on the close bond he shares with fellow crew members.

"My family and friends back home have a similar sort of humor to the Navy - tough love and a little teasing. But deep down we truly care about one another. The spirit of camaraderie is very strong," said Wiscons.

As the crew trains ashore, construction personnel from both Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia will continue to assemble the $2.7 billion vessel.

Once complete, the submarine will be equipped to conduct covert surveillance, support special forces, and track other ships and submarines.

Illinois will measure 377 feet in length, displace 7,835 tons while submerged, and be able to operate at speeds greater than 25 knots (28 mph).

"The keel-laying ceremony is an important step in the process," said Wiscons. "The Navy has always valued tradition and ceremony, and the ceremony symbolizes an important step in the boat's life."

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