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MARINETTE, Wis. | Mary Winnefeld couldn't be more thrilled to be the sponsor of a ship named for Sioux City.

Sponsoring a ship named for a Midwestern city makes the honor special, said Winnefeld, herself a Midwest native from Menomonie, Wisconsin, who's proud to represent the hard-working spirit of the people in the middle of the country.

"The Midwest represents America well," she said.

A Navy tradition, a ship's sponsor is involved with the ship and her crew for a lifetime. Winnefeld broke the ceremonial bottle of champagne across the bow of the ship before Saturday's launching, and she'll plan the ship's commissioning, which will take place sometime in 2017.

Winnefeld plans to make sure the crews that serve on board the Sioux City know who she is. Her job, she said, is to bestow her spirit and divine protection for the ship. As part of that recognition, her initials were welded into the ship's keel during the keel-laying ceremony in February 2014.

"I'm especially proud and honored to bestow these qualities on the USS Sioux City," she said. "You form a bond with the ship. Crews come and go, but you hope your spirit remains.

"Count on me to be an integral part of her life."

A ship's sponsor, usually a woman, is someone who has dedicated her life to public service. Winnefeld fits that description. She's volunteered for organizations, many of which are involved with supporting military families, such as the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, Tragedy Assistance for Survivors and the Cohen Veteran Network Foundation.

She's especially known for her work with wounded servicemen and women, Adm. Michelle Howard, vice chief of Naval Operations told those gathered for Saturday's launching. Winnefeld has become such a fixture advocating for the wounded warriors and their families at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., that she's known by many there as "Aunt Mary."

"The lives of our servicemen and women, they were willing to put their lives on the line for us. I feel we owe it to them to help get their lives back to normal," said Winnefeld, who lives in northern Virginia with her husband, retired Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., who also served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Being the wife of a high-ranking Navy officer, plus having a father and in-laws who served in the Navy, as well as a son currently in the Naval Academy, Winnefeld said the military is a family for her. With her sponsorship of the USS Sioux City, her family has grown.

"I feel all those serving on the ship in the future to be part of my family," said Winnefeld, who was named sponsor by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus.

Having never been to Sioux City, Winnefeld said she looks forward to visiting. She and her husband were invited by mayor Bob Scott and Siouxland Chamber of Commerce president Chris McGowan, both of whom she met and spent time with Friday and Saturday. Through their interactions, she said she gained an appreciation for Sioux City and its residents. She can feel their pride in the ship, and it makes her proud to sponsor the ship bearing the city's name.

"I love their enthusiasm," she said. "It's a real honor."

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