LOCKWOOD — Veterans were honored Friday in Lockwood, including members of the USS Billings, a Naval warship named for the city.
On a day when all veterans are celebrated for their service, members of the USS Billings were popular attendants at the Veteran's Day ceremony at Lockwood HighSchool this morning. The veterans were happy to be in the city their ship is named after.
"It has been great. First time in Montana, first time in Billings and we finally get to meet the people and see the place that our ship's named after. I have 16 sailors with us, and we’re enjoying the experience the culture, the cuisine, and of course the weather," said Brett Seeley, commanding officer for the USS Billings Gold Crew.
Those 16 sailors are only a portion of the crew and are back stateside after six months on the ship. Most recently the crew intercepted hundreds of millions of dollars of illegal drugs in the Caribbean.
"Our last deployment, we just came home from in October, a month ago. We were down there for six months and collected over 3,300 kg of cocaine and 1,800 pounds of marijuana. So, we do counter-drug operations, and we do flight operations as well, we have helicopters embarked on board the ship and we have small boats, and we even bring coast guard law enforcement officers out with us to do some of those missions," said Seeley.
It's important work happening on a ship that was proposed for decommissioning by the Navy due to design flaws.
"The Littoral combat ship series, and there’s a lot of them. Some of them haven’t performed very well at all. I can tell you that the USS Billings has performed very, very well. And I can tell you that we don’t want a ship out in the ocean that doesn’t perform. We don’t want a piece of iron out there that isn’t doing what it needs to do to protect this country. That being said, the USS Billings is not in that situation. As long as it's functioning, as long as it’s doing the job that it was sent out to do, I don’t think we need to worry about it," said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, the Montana Democrat who was at the ship's commissioning ceremony.
But on Friday, there was good news regarding the ship. Tester told MTN that he expects the ship will avoid decommissioning for this next round and longer.
"There’s engine issues, and there’s still engine issues with the USS Billings, but I’m going to tell you the crew has been able to work through those issues and make it work. They still need to do a new combining gear in every one of these ships, no doubt about it, and we’re going to have to ask some questions to make sure the American taxpayer doesn’t have to pay for it. That’s a mistake made by the contractor," added Tester.
MTN was in Florida when the USS Billings was commissioned in 2019. The Navy had hoped it would be functional for at least 30 years. While the ship is no longer up to be decommissioned next year, according to Tester, it remains to be seen how long the ship will be used by the Navy.
"Right now, the ship is currently deployed. Our sister crew is on board operating and producing results for the Navy, and we’ll continue to operate that ship as long as it's around. Right now, I think the future's bright for the USS Billings because it's one of the ships that produces. But Navy leadership, when they make decisions, we’ll follow any decisions they make. But for now, the ship is here operating and on deployment," Seeley added.
"We’re not even close to decommissioning the USS Billings. There’s been some Littoral combat ships that have been decommissioned but not the USS Billings and I don’t think that’s going to happen for a long time," Tester said.
And that means Friday was not only a day to celebrate the crew but to celebrate the ship that bears our city’s name.
"My experience with Billings and actually coming to the city of Billings it's amazing. I can go back home knowing that the city I’m representing, I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, I’ve talked to the people out in public. And I had a great experience with it, and it puts a little more honor on my shoulder when I know I’m carrying that city’s name," said Gregory Simmons, petty officer first class on the USS Billings.
"Seeing the place that your ship's named after and meeting the people that live in that place has been nothing but inspiring. It's motivated us and we’re going to go back more prideful and more proud to do our jobs the best we can to make our city that we’re named after," Seeley said.