Ship of Souls -- The USS New York is a Floating Memorial

"We carry the DNA of 9/11 victims right in the soul of this ship," Command Master Chief Shawn Isbell explains.


May 23--Six feet, 2 inches of Navy-grade muscle with forged-in-steel self-assurance to match, Command Master Chief Shawn Isbell is unquestionably a front-line kind of guy. But whenever he leads a tour of the USS New York, Isbell is no match for his emotions.

That's because the New York is not only a warship -- an amphibious landing transport dock, to be exact -- but also a maritime memorial to the 2,753 people killed Sept. 11, 2001 in Lower Manhattan. During last month's Fleet Week Port Everglades, the New York was the big draw, attracting thousands of curious South Florida civilians.

It is, quite simply, a ship unlike any other on the sea.

Its bow contains 7 1/2 tons of steel that once upheld the Twin Towers -- "We carry the DNA of 9/11 victims right in the soul of this ship," the New York's commanding officer likes to say --and it's appointed with many mournful souvenirs of a disaster that rattled the world on a perfect Tuesday morning almost 13 years ago.

Time cannot heal some wounds. All those photos of firefighters in their prime, all those salvaged pieces of twisted, melted metal, they cripple Isbell, the ship's senior enlisted man. First, the lump in the throat. Then, the tears.

"I normally cannot hold it together when I'm in here," says Isbell, standing in the lounge of the chief's mess, with its forlorn display of funeral memorial cards in the corner. "People lost mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters that day. That sense of loss -- I still can't come to grips with it."

The New York's sister ships, the USS Arlington and the USS Somerset, also commemorate the attacks that claimed a total of 2,997 lives in three states. On the Arlington, a privately funded Tribute Room contains a quilt, sewn by schoolchildren, listing the names of the 184 Pentagon victims. The catchphrase "Let's Roll" is emblazoned on the Somerset, named for the Pennsylvania borough where Flight 93 crashed.

"But when everyone thinks 9/11, they think World Trade Center," says Isbell.

The name of his ship, as well as its collection of grievous artifacts, serves an additional purpose. "It's easy to motivate the sailors when you have something like 9/11 to talk about," he says.

"It's like serving in World War II on the USS Pearl Harbor."

The definition of courage

Commissioned in 2009, the New York docked in Port Everglades specifically for Fleet Week, the signature annual event of Broward Navy Days, when sailors, Marines and members of the Coast Guard participate in interservice competitions, volunteer in the community and enjoy Fort Lauderdale hospitality. This year, about 2,000 civilians toured the New York and U.S. Coast Guard cutters Bernard C. Webber and Dependable.

In advance of Fleet Week, the Navy also invited a handful of journalists and three 9/11 first responders to embark on the New York for the two-day trip from the ship's home port -- Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville -- to Port Everglades. Roughly 120 Marines also hitched a ride.

After a 5 a.m. workout on the ship's enormous well deck, Marine Cpl. Damian Dunlay, a 23-year-old from Homestead, recalled that day in the second grade when terrorists hijacked four planes they never intended to land.

"I heard the teachers talking about it, and my mom took me out of school early," he says.

The events of 9/11 helped motivate him to enlist in the Marine Corps, never mind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when he graduated from high school in 2009. Says Dunlay, "I thought, 'Now is my time to serve'."

To Capt. Christopher Brunett, this is courage, defined.

A relaxed leader with a salt-and-pepper crewcut and and an Instamatic smile, Brunett graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1989, when "we weren't getting planes back filled with body bags," he said.

"But these young Americans raised their right hand to support and defend the Constitution when this nation was at war on two fronts."

You think "today's kids" are pale imitations of their elders? You haven't met the sailors who serve under Brunett, he says.

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