MARINETTE, Wis. (Army News Service, Sept. 26, 2006) - The Navy christened and launched the nation's first Littoral Combat Ship, Freedom (LCS-1), at the Marinette Marine shipyard Sept. 24.

Birgit Smith is the ship's sponsor. She is the widow of Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery and gallantry above and beyond the call of duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Birgit broke a champagne bottle across the ship's bow to formally christen the ship, which then made a dramatic side-launch into the Menominee River.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chief of Naval Operations, put Birgit's selection as sponsor into perspective for the assembled crowd by referring to a letter her husband wrote home from Iraq.

"When I think of his words 'I am prepared to give all that I am' and the way he did exactly that, it reminds me of the true high cost of living in America, the price of freedom," he said. "Paul paid that debt for us. His valor reminds us that we must be ready to defend freedom whenever and wherever it is challenged."

Col. Thomas P. Smith (no relation) commanded Smith's unit - the 11th Engineer Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division - and nominated Smith for the MOH.

"As I learned how special the "sponsor" of a ship is to the Navy and the ongoing relationship Birgit will have with the ship and her crew, I was truly humbled," he said. "As the Navy leaders and crew got to know Birgit, I think they realized how special she is and how fitting their choice was for this honor."

Mullen noted that ships "really do take on the spirit of their sponsor. And I for one will take great comfort that when Freedom's crews sail into harm's way, your quiet strength will go with them," Mullen said to Birgit.

The 377-foot Freedom is capable of speeds in excess of 40 knots and can operate in water less than 20 feet deep. The ship will act as a platform for launch and recovery of manned and unmanned vehicles. Its modular design will support interchangeable mission packages, allowing the ship to be reconfigured for antisubmarine warfare, mine warfare or surface warfare missions on an as-needed basis.

"Just a little more than three years ago she was just an idea, now Freedom stands before us. And on this morning, we christen her, send her down the ways and get her ready to join the fleet next year," said Mullen. "It comes none too soon, because there are tough challenges out there that only she can handle."

Freedom acknowledges the enduring foundation of the nation and honors American communities which bear the name Freedom. States having towns named Freedom include California, Indiana, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

But, as Mullen made clear, Freedom also acknowledges new challenges faced by the Navy in the war on terror, and will complement the vision of a global "1,000-ship navy" built upon ad hoc maritime partnerships.

"Freedom will know how to fight, but she can also be a friend," said Mullen. "I am convinced that if we pool resources together, as partners and friends, we can best tackle many of the tough maritime problems we face. The Freedom class will fit perfectly into such partnerships. Her shallow draft and agility will allow her to go, when asked - deep into green and brown water - where we, our allies, and emerging partners face some of the most difficult challenges."

Freedom will be manned by one of two rotational crews, blue and gold, similar to the rotational crews assigned to Trident submarines.

Freedom will continue to undergo outfitting and testing at Marinette Marine until it is commissioned in 2007 and eventually homeported in San Diego, Ca.

(Editor's note: Information compiled from Department of Defense and Department of Navy releases.)