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Letter: What was Fitzgerald doing at sea?

By Scott Cheney-Peters Last month, seven sailors aboard the U.S. Navy destroyer Fitzgerald lost their lives in a collision at sea. I had the privilege of serving aboard Fitzgerald. Although I did not personally know those who died, I owe a specia...

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By Scott Cheney-Peters

Last month, seven sailors aboard the U.S. Navy destroyer Fitzgerald lost their lives in a collision at sea. I had the privilege of serving aboard Fitzgerald. Although I did not personally know those who died, I owe a special debt of gratitude for those who took the watch from me.

Since the incident, many have asked how it could have happened, and much ink has been spilled trying to provide context on the difficulties of sailing in congested waterways at night as well as speculating on the errors that led to tragedy. Answers will come in time and I will not attempt to guess them here. Instead of focusing on why the sailors died, I believe it necessary and a far greater credit to their memory to focus on why they chose to serve and live in harm's way, and the importance of their mission to our nation.

When I joined the Navy I was compelled by a mix of patriotism, a desire to see the world, interest in military service, and the cold financial realities of paying for college.

Personal motivation among the Fitzgerald Seven surely varied, but I have no doubt that through them all ran a common thread of a sense of duty, a desire to give back to our country, and a belief that what they were doing mattered. That through their actions and sacrifices - their long separations from those they loved, their tests of mental and physical endurance - the nation and world were made better. But what was it that they were doing? What was so important to risk daily their lives and the lives of their shipmates? Why was Fitzgerald at sea that dark, early morning?

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As North Dakotans, far removed from the coasts, it can be easy to forget just how impactful the seas are on our lives. While North Dakota exports its oil, machinery, wheat, and corn primarily to Canada and Mexico, it gets its second- and third-most imports from China and South Korea. For the nation as a whole, more than half of U.S. imports by value come by vessel, while over a third of exports go out in ships. The economic gains we reap from selling abroad are immense and freedom of choice we consumers amass from imports is unparalleled.

The Navy defends this maritime trade around the world, but protecting our economic lifeblood is only one reason Fitzgerald is in Japan, her sister ships are in Spain, Carrier Strike Groups deploy to the Middle East, and the submarine USS North Dakota prowls the ocean depths. Put simply, it's about maintaining the capability to defeat threats to the United States and our Allies in someone else's backyard rather than our living room.

While the United States is bordered by two vast oceans, it needs ships to patrol them that they don't become highways to our shores for our adversaries. Conversely, when we need to reach out and touch someone - whether it be launching airstrikes on ISIS from carriers, SEALs from submarines, or cruise missiles from destroyers like Fitzgerald - we rely on our fleet to be there. When disaster strikes, our Navy also operates as one of our best tools of diplomacy, providing humanitarian assistance and relief to places inaccessible to anyone else and earning us the trust and goodwill of those we might need to call on in our own times of crisis. This includes Japan, whose coast guard leapt to assistance as soon as it received reports of the Fitzgerald collision.

Public reporting says Fitzgerald was returning from patrolling throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, "supporting security and stability." While the description is a bit broad, and likely consisted of some more specific missions and activities, supporting security and stability is the crux of our need for a strong Navy. At the heart of it, the sailors on the Fitzgerald were at sea to make any potential enemy think twice before acting against our interests. Better to win in peacetime than in war - but even in peacetime there will be casualties.

My heart goes out to the Fitzgerald Seven and the loved ones and communities they left behind. Remember why they served and the difference that they made.

Scott Cheney-Peters, of Silver Spring, Md., served aboard USS Fitzgerald from 2006-2008 and is an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He is a graduate of Red River High School. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy.

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