Former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus Credit:

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UNIVERSITY – Navy Secretary Ray Mabus was at the Ole Miss-Alabama game Saturday promoting what he calls America’s “away team” — the U.S. Navy.

Mabus, who served as Mississippi governor from 1988 to 1992, took the field during the first quarter to announce his decision to name two Navy destroyers for two Marines from Mississippi who received the Medal of Honor for action during World War II: Jack Lucas of Hattiesburg and Louis Wilson Jr. of Jackson.

Mabus said his visits to announce ship names at football games and to throw out first pitches at baseball parks is part of his effort “to try to connect the American people with their military” because “Americans don’t get to see them very much – we’re America’s ‘Away Team’.”

Mabus noted that by naming the ships at sporting events that typically draw 50,000 to 75,000 attendees he helps the public make a connection to the military, which these days is mostly deployed overseas in the war on terrorism.

Indeed, when Mabus announced the names of the two ships, the 66,167 at Vaught Hemingway Stadium (a record for a sports event in the state) rose to cheer their approval in a lengthy standing ovation, just the sort of enthusiasm Mabus says he hopes to engender through his appearances.

Lucas enlisted in the Marines as a 16-year-old and threw himself atop two grenades to save his colleagues during the Battle of Iwo Jima. He is the youngest Marine ever to earn the Medal of Honor. He survived to return to Hattiesburg and later served in the Army.

Wilson was severely wounded during a successful defense against superior odds at the Battle of Guam, and later rose to the rank of general and served as commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps and was the first commandant to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mabus, ambassador to Saudi Arabia under President Bill Clinton, has taken some heat for his ship name choices. But he insists that he’s been “more of a traditionalist than most secretaries of the Navy have been” in line with years of naming conventions for different vessel type types.

In naming 86 ships, Mabus said he’s been able to recognize many outstanding Americans, states and cities.

“Every so often in these jobs when you get an opportunity to right a wrong … that’s why I named (a supply ship) after Harvey Milk,” he noted. Milk, the first openly gay person elected to office in California, was shot to death at San Francisco City Hall in 1978. He also was a Navy diver kicked out of the service when his sexual orientation was discovered.

Mabus said he also has named ships for Mississippi civil rights champion Medgar Evers, aviator Amelia Earhart, explorers Lewis & Clark, as well as the City of Jackson.

Mabus, an Ackerman native who also served as state auditor, can wear the “away team” badge as well, having logged 1.3 million miles as Navy Secretary, the post he was nominated to in 2009 by President Barack Obama.

In addition to the football game, Mabus was featured in a “Life of Public Service” conversation Friday evening at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics in the Meek School of Journalism  and New Media. Charles L. Overby, who led the conversation with Mabus, serves on the board of Mississippi Today.

As for his future plans, the Ole Miss graduate told Mississippi Today he will leave the Navy post before Obama goes out of office in January 2017. Mabus said he doesn’t have any specific plans other than putting in more time at home with his wife, Lynne, a nurse, and three daughters, Elisabeth and Annie, who are young adults pursuing their interests, and Kate, a 15-year-old high school sophomore in Washington, D.C.

“I don’t know what my plans are going to be – I’ve been the longest serving secretary of the Navy since World War I, it’s been the greatest honor of my life,” he noted. “I hope I can continue to do things that are relevant and make a difference.”

Asked about comments by Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump that he “knows more about ISIS than the generals,” Mabus, a Democrat, noted his own experience in moving from civilian life to the role of Navy secretary.

“When I came in as secretary, I was briefed in one-hour chunks from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. … for six weeks,” he said. “That was just to get me caught up on the Navy and Marine Corps.”

“Even with that, it took a lot of on-the-job training to get up to speed. It’s tough for anybody looking in from the outside.”

Mabus also said:

• About Mississippi’s national standings at or near the bottom – “There’s one way out and it’s education. We’re not doing the job for anybody in education.” He said the lack of adequate education and health care for Americans generally means the military can recruit from only 25 percent of Americans ages 18-24 because 75 percent cannot meet requirements for education, physical condition or have been incarcerated.

• About using social media to promote the Navy – “Our target audience is people 18 to 35. That’s the way they communicate and that’s what we’ve got to do.” He also said social media is a way to close the connection gap between the military and the American public. He’s on Facebook at Secretary of the Navy and his Twitter handle is @SECNAV.

• About why Navy presence matters around the world – The U.S. Navy must be in the right place at the right time, but also all the time to allow leaders more options with more ships deployed. He noted that a vast majority of the world’s commerce moves on the oceans and it is the U.S. Navy that keeps those vital lines of commerce open for all nations, not just the USA.

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