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USS Ponce (LPD-15)

The 12th and final ship of the Austin-class of amphibious transport docks, otherwise known as landing platform docks (LPDs), the USS Ponce is named after the city of Ponce in Puerto Rico which honors the Spanish explorer, discoverer of Florida, and first governor of Puerto Rico—Juan Ponce de Leon. Currently in her 41st year of service to her country (2012), the USS Ponce bears the motto “The Proud Lion.”

Construction

Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company (Seattle, Washington) laid down the keel of the USS Ponce on October 31, 1966. Sponsored by Mrs. John J. Hyland, wife of the US Navy Admiral who commanded the Pacific Fleet from 1967 through 1970, the USS Ponce was launched on May 20, 1970. The USS Ponce entered into active service upon her commissioning on July 10, 1971. This US Navy vessel employs a complement of 29 officers and 487 enlisted men and has the capacity for a marine detachment of approximately 900.

Measuring 570 feet in length, the USS Ponce displaces 16,591 tons (full) and is capable of achieving speeds of up to 20 knots. Her propulsion system is comprised of two Foster-Wheeler boilers working in conjunction with two DeLaval steam turbines and two propellers. Ponce’s current array of weaponry consists of two 25 mm MK 38 chain guns, two Phalanx close-in-weapons-systems (CIWS), and eight .50 caliber machine guns.

Naval History

Operating from her homeport of Norfolk, Virginia, the USS Ponce initiated a series of deployments within one year from the date of her commissioning. Beginning in May of 1972 and extending throughout the decade of the 1970s, she deployed to the Caribbean three times, to the North Atlantic twice, and to the Mediterranean a total of seven times.

Further deployments ensued into the next decade as the USS Ponce was alternately deployed between the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Early into the 1980s, the Ponce was involved in two incidents in which she sustained damage. A collision with the USS Fort Snelling (LSD-30) on February 2, 1982 resulted in minimal damage to her port side while more extensive damage was incurred on February 14, 1984 when her stern gate was destroyed and eventually lost near Morehead City, North Carolina.

During the 1990s the USS Ponce performed a variety of duties. On August 5, 1990, she assisted with the evacuation of US citizens from Liberia by working in conjunction with three other US Navy vessels (Saipan [LHA-2], Sumter [LST-1181], and Peterson [DD-969]) to deliver a US Marine Corps rifle company to the US Embassy as an element of added security. Subsequent to a four-month long maintenance availability in Norfolk in early 1992, Ponce went on to support relief efforts in Miami in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew and counter drug operations in the Caribbean later that same year. A six-month deployment to the Mediterranean that commenced on March 17, 1993 brought Ponce to the region of Bosnia and Herzegovina where she assisted in enforcing a no-fly zone in Operation Deny Flight and partook in humanitarian relief efforts as part of Operation Provide Promise.

Departing from Norfolk on January 10, 2003, the USS Ponce set sail to the Persian Gulf to provide support during the invasion of Iraq. En route to her final destination, Ponce embarked Marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. By February of that same year, Ponce achieved the status of flagship of the Commander Mine Countermeasure Squadron Three, designated as Commander, Task Group 55.4. In this role, the USS Ponce directed a series of minesweeping operations, many of which employed unique approaches such as utilizing trained marine animals and unmanned underwater vehicles.

The year 2005 proved to be an eventful one for the USS Ponce. Setting sail from Norfolk on March 25th, Ponce made a port visit to Augusta Bay, Sicily prior to her arrival in the Persian Gulf where she dedicated three months to performing operations in support of US efforts in the global War on Terrorism. Prior to her departure from the Gulf, Ponce conducted port visits to cities in the United Arab Emirates. She then followed orders to deploy to the northern tip of the Red Sea into the Gulf of Aqaba to backload marines. Port visits to Malta and Rota, Spain concluded Ponce’s journey before her return home to Norfolk on September 27th.

The USS Ponce endured a regular overhaul in 2006 which was followed by additional deployments to the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and Persian Gulf through 2011. In March of 2011, Ponce transited the Suez Canal en route to the Gulf of Sidra to offer assistance with operations relative to the 2011 Libyan civil war.

Originally slated to be decommissioned, the USS Ponce was redesignated as an Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB) on March 31, 2012. After an anticipated four to five month period of modifications, Ponce will assume the role of AFSB (I)-15 in support of MH-53 Sea Dragon helicopters conducting minesweeping operations.

Asbestos Risk on the USS Ponce (LPD-15)

The motto of the USS Ponce—“The Proud Lion”—may accurately reflect the admiration of the US Navy for her ship’s crew and the superior level by which they carry out their routine operations and specifically assigned duties, but by no means should it be used in reference to the actual ship which is a site of asbestos exposure and without question serves as an environment conducive to the development of asbestos-related diseases that produce serious and sometimes fatal consequences for her occupants.

At the time the USS Ponce was constructed, asbestos was a key industrial component utilized in the construction and maintenance of US Navy ships. Over 300 products employed within the confines of amphibious transport docks and similar ships were known to have contained this naturally-occurring mineral. Considered to possess unparalleled properties with regard to heat and fire resistance, asbestos was integrated into a multitude of products—gaskets, valves, adhesives, insulation materials, to name a few—that were in turn incorporated into every crevice in the inner-workings of the ship as a safety measure aimed at protecting the ship’s occupants from incidents such as outbreaks of fire in engine rooms or unexpected surges of high heat/steam in boiler rooms.

Disturbance of asbestos products by means of human interference (e.g., maintenance or demolition procedures) or deterioration by means of the process of aging are the two methods by which asbestos fibers become airborne and thus, at the ready for human inhalation and/or ingestion.

Inside the human body, asbestos fibers lay the groundwork for the development of one of several diseases—asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer, and/or gastrointestinal cancer—as they produce scarring, inflammation, and in later stages, cancerous cell mutations.

Asbestos-related diseases are directly responsible for the deaths of nearly 10,000 individuals each year. The extended latency period (20-50 years) of these diseases are the reason that these mortality statistics are anticipated to continue to rise peaking in the year 2020.

The USS Ponce has the capacity to house and transport thousands of individuals. Thus, thousands of individuals will potentially be exposed to asbestos as long as this ship remains on active duty. Safeguards against such exposure must be implemented in an effort to reduce the number of individuals who may fall victim to the deadly effects of asbestos years down the road.

If you believe that your service in the US Navy may have exposed you to asbestos and you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, please contact us to obtain a free information packet. It contains numerous medical and legal resources that are available to help asbestos victims.

Sources
Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog

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January 20, 2017
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