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Face of Defense: Building History

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For sailors, being assigned to the USS Constitution — the world's oldest commissioned warship still afloat — means a front-row seat to history.

For Petty Officer 1st Class Hilary Lemelin, it's meant a desk, too.

Two, actually. When the Navy embarked on a project to make a historically significant desk for the nation's vice president in 2020, Lemelin, a builder, was tapped to lead the effort, using materials from "Old Ironsides." She and her team also built a desk for the Navy secretary with materials from the USS Constitution and other historic ships.

A sailor in dress whites smiles for a photo.
Lemelin Portrait
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Hilary Lemelin poses for a photo in front of USS Constitution, Aug. 27, 2020.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Samoluk
VIRIN: 200827-N-YT019-0001Y
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Hilary Lemelin
Job Title:  Builder, Leading Petty Officer
Hometown:  Milan, New Hampshire
Stationed: USS Constitution, Boston

Desk Job 

With the desks now installed in their respective offices at the Pentagon and the West Wing of the White House, "something that we made with our own hands is ... a part of history," Lemelin  said. 

Lemelin and the three other sailors on the project — all Seabees, the nickname for members of the Navy's construction force —  built the desks in about seven weeks.

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The wood they used for the vice president's desk came from restoration projects the Constitution has undergone over the years. Given the age of the three-masted ship — one of the Navy's six original frigates, launched in 1797 — occasional touch-ups are necessary, Lemelin noted. 

Copper and nails for both desks also came from the Constitution, and the Navy secretary's desk included material from the frigate USS Chesapeake; sloop of war USS Constellation; and battleships USS Texas, USS New Jersey and USS Arizona.

A metal anchor inlay on a desk.
Anchor Detail
A detail from a Navy heritage desk.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 210326-D-MO260-0002Q

The project team — which also included Senior Chief Petty Officer Noah Ziegler and Petty Officers 2nd Class Donald F. Morse IV and Elijohana Cole — performed the work at the Washington Navy Yard, home of the Naval History and Heritage Command, which oversaw the project. 

The team was mindful of the project's materials and meaning. They left square-nail holes in parts of the panels as a reminder of their origins as planks from the Constitution, and built pen trays in the center drawer of each desk that included a piece of the USS Arizona, the ship where nearly half of the Americans killed in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor perished.

"That's the biggest thing for me," Lemelin said. "We're helping whoever sits in those seats think about the immense weight they hold."

Vice President Kamala Harris conducts business at the USS Constitution desk.
At the Desk
Vice President Kamala Harris conducts business at the USS Constitution desk in Washington, D.C., March 2, 2021. The Naval History and Heritage Command undertook the project to create a heritage desk for both the vice president and the Navy secretary as physical reminders of the more than 200 years of sailor honor, courage and commitment embodied in USS Constitution, the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat and America’s ship of state. The desks also serve as reminders that today’s Navy operates in the face of determined rivals and that, to preserve freedom of the seas, today’s sailors must deliver the naval power America needs, just as their shipmates have since 1775.
Photo By: Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson
VIRIN: 210302-N-WZ681-0237

"These officials will sit at these desks and make decisions that affect our nation and the very military that we serve in." 

Constitutionally Suited 

For Lemelin, the project was an unforgettable experience. It "was the first time I had ever done anything like this, especially on a large scale and of such importance," she said. 

A sailor stands and speaks by a wood desk in a room.
Desk Remarks
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Hilary Lemelin delivers remarks during an executive desk presentation event at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C., Feb. 21, 2021.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Randy L. Adams II
VIRIN: 210221-N-WZ681-1049

That's not to say she wasn't prepared, though. 

Always interested in construction, Lemelin grew up doing carpentry with her father and took woodworking in junior high. She knew in college that she wanted to join the military, spoke to a Navy recruiter and left for boot camp about a month after earning her degree. When she took military career aptitude tests, she recalls, "all my options were inside the Seabee community."

A sailor in a face mask performs work on a machine.
Repair Shop
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Hilary Lemelin works in the USS Constitution repair shop.
Photo By: Courtesy of Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Hilary Lemelin
VIRIN: 211101-N-D0439-103Y
Two sailors perched high atop a historic three-masted frigate smile for a photo.
Aboard Old Ironsides
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Hilary Lemelin poses for a photo aboard the USS Constitution.
Photo By: Courtesy of Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Hilary Lemelin
VIRIN: 211101-N-D0439-101

She's been serving aboard the Constitution for about a year and four months, where she runs the wood repair shop, overseeing four crew members. Their tasks range from performing routine maintenance to building large specialty items such as a ship's wheel replica or small gifts for VIP guests.

She also gives tours to the public and to special groups such as service members and their families, veterans, government officials and other guests visiting Old Ironsides (a nickname the Constitution earned during the War of 1812, when a sailor saw British cannonballs bouncing harmlessly off its hull and exclaimed that its "sides are made of iron!").

An old fashioned sailing ship moves across the water.
Heritage Week
USS Constitution gets underway during Chief Petty Officer Heritage Week in Boston, Oct. 22, 2021. The week is dedicated to mentoring the Navy's newest chiefs through history and heritage training aboard its oldest commissioned ship.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Skyler Okerman
VIRIN: 211022-N-KN684-0373C

"I've always enjoyed history. This would be a good tour for a history buff," Lemelin said of her time aboard the ship. "It has definitely piqued my interest in history again."

Can Do

Lemelin, who also enjoys numerous outdoor pursuits in her spare time and "spending all the time I can with my daughter," was the only member of the desk team assigned to the Constitution. 

A woman smiles for a photo while holding a toddler, with mountains in the background.
Seabee Baby
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Hilary Lemelin poses for a photo with her daughter.
Photo By: Courtesy of Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Hilary Lemelin
VIRIN: 211101-N-D0439-102Y
A little girl stands in front of a desk.
Daughter and Desk
The daughter of Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Hilary Lemelin stands in front of the desk her mother helped build for the vice president.
Photo By: Courtesy of Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Hilary Lemelin
VIRIN: 210219-N-D0439-101Y

What they all shared, though, was the Seabee ethos.

Established during World War II to build advance bases in the war zone, the Navy's construction force has as its official motto "Construimus, Batuimus," Latin for "We Build, We Fight."

But the force also has long been associated with the phrase "Can Do" — an expression of Seabees' spirit and ability to get the job done.

Navy seaman works at a construction site.
First Batch
Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Hilary Lemelin, assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 11, collects the first batch of concrete for testing at a construction project in Chuuk, Micronesia, April 4, 2018. NMCB-11 is deployed to conduct construction, humanitarian and foreign assistance projects in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Yamilet Perez
VIRIN: 180402-N-HG710-0122
A service member and civilian install a window screen on a building under construction.
Screen Install
Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Hilary Lemelin installs a window screen for a 200-square-foot elementary school classroom in Chuuk, Micronesia, June 22, 2018.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Yamilet Perez
VIRIN: 180622-N-HG710-1129Y

That's true whether the job is a temporary military structure in a combat zone, a schoolhouse in a remote country or fine furniture for two of the nation's most powerful offices, built for the ages.  

(This story includes material from an article by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Brent Pyfrom.)

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