The USNS Cesar Chavez: The Navy’s Name Game, Cont.

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UPDATE: It’s official: Navy has just announced ship to be named for Cesar Chavez.

So which of these heroes should we honor by naming a Navy ship after him? One’s a Pearl Harbor Medal of Honor winner. The second gave his life in Iraq so that his fellow Marines would live. And the third brought respect to the migrant farm workers who put food on American dinner tables.

You may recall the Navy stirring controversy recently by naming an amphibious ship for the late John Murtha, a pork-drunk Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. Well, it has done it again: it is expected to announce Wednesday that it is naming a new cargo vessel for Cesar Chavez. He was the Mexican-American labor-rights advocate who fought for the migrant  workers who harvest much of the nation’s fruits and vegetables in California and other agricultural states (those of a certain age will recall his “boycott grapes” campaign). He died in 1993.

The problem with both names, from the GOP perspective, is that they honor Democratic heroes. “This decision shows the direction the Navy is heading,” Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr., R-Calif., said Tuesday. “Naming a ship after Cesar Chavez goes right along with other recent decisions by the Navy that appear to be more about making a political statement than upholding the Navy’s history and tradition.” He wants military — not union or political — heroes to get such honors

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who has the ultimate authority when it comes to naming ships, is expected to announce the name of the ship Wednesday during a visit to San Diego. He’s a Democratic politician who some Republicans think has become too political when it comes to naming Navy vessels.

Democrats, of course, have a different view. “”I applaud Secretary Mabus for continuing the Navy’s rich tradition of naming these supply ships after pioneers, explorers and visionaries,” Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said in a statement. Chavez “worked tirelessly to promote fair working conditions and equal rights for all Americans.”

The ship-naming spat comes hard on the heels of the Navy’s push to allow same-sex weddings and civil unions on its bases once “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is history. The Navy backed down from that effort last week after 63 GOP congressmen warned them that, in their opinion, the proposal violated the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

For those of us who have been lucky enough to cover the military for decades — and are lucky enough to be parents — it’s easy to view the services as four very different children:

— The Army is big and strong, and generally leery of offending Mom and Dad.

— The Air Force knows it is smarter than its parents, but tries not to show it. Too much.

— The Marines are the kid brother who is constantly outdoing his older siblings. Plus, he has cooler clothes than they do.

— The Navy is the dutiful oldest child with a strong rebellious steak, honed over centuries of independent command at sea.

Hunter, himself a Marine veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, has a couple of recommendations for the names of the Navy’s next vessels. “If this decision were about recognizing the Hispanic community’s contribution to our nation, many other names come to mind, including Marine Corps Sergeant Rafael Peralta, who was nominated for the Medal of Honor for action in Iraq,” Hunter said. Peralta killed in Fallujah, in 2004, while using his body to shield his fellow Marines from a hand grenade. He earned a posthumous Navy Cross after his family vainly sought the Medal of Honor for his sacrifice. “Peralta is one of many Hispanic war heroes — some of whom are worthy of the same recognition.”

Good local congressman that he is, Hunter also proposed naming one for a resident of his district. “And we cannot forget about John Finn, a lifelong San Diego resident who won the Medal of Honor for what he did during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor,” he said. Finn, who died a year ago, “is another worthy candidate that was evidently overlooked in the selection process.”

It’s a safe bet the new cargo ship will be named the USNS Cesar Chavez, and not the USNS Chavez (it’s USNS instead of USS because most of the crew on such a support vessel is civilian). After all, we don’t want Hugo Chavez, the dubious president of Venezuela, thinking we named it in his honor.