Lt. Erin Millea always knew she wanted to be a dentist—her father and older brother are practicing and one of her sisters is in dental school. However, her desire to serve her country and see the world led her to the unique position of practicing dentistry aboard the newly commissioned USS New York, an amphibious assault ship fortified with seven and a half tons of steel from the World Trade Center. While there have been several ships named USS New York in the past, most have not even approached the expected lifespan for the current ship and none have held such symbolic meaning. The first USS New York, for instance, was a gondola commissioned in 1776 by Benedict Arnold that was burned only two days later to avoid capture by the British. The most recent ship, which can remain active up to forty years, was given the motto “Strength Forged Through Sacrifice. Never Forget,” highlighting the perseverance of our troops and constant remembrance of the lives lost and affected by the 9/11 attacks. Lt. Millea, who was commissioned as an ensign in the Navy in 2004, spoke about her pride in working on a ship that has become so personally meaningful for New Yorkers and Americans throughout the country.
Millea, who grew up and attended college in Nebraska, cites a military program designed to help students pay for medical school as her entry into the Navy: “I was very patriotic to begin with and had a lot of family members in the military during World War II. My Uncle Pat told me about this program called the Health Professions Scholarship Program that would pay for dental school. I figured that would be a good way to serve my country and also see the world.” Since then, Lt. Millea has been busy traveling in preparation for the ship’s commissioning, including a stay in New Orleans where the USS New York was built. The ship was finally commissioned on November 7th at Pier 88 South in New York City. As the ship’s sole dentist, Millea takes care of the dental needs of all 360 sailors on board, as well as approximately 700 marines when they board the USS New York to embark. In addition, Millea takes on various collateral duties—she is the Health Promotions Coordinator for the entire ship and is Treasurer and Social Coordinator of the Ward Room, an off-duty facility for the thirty-seven officers on the ship.
Lt. Millea’s position has taken her to some very unlikely places and allowed her to meet people from all walks of life, especially during the time the ship has spent in New York. Millea says her favorite part about the job is that she interacts with everyone on board the ship because she’s the dentist for all of them. “I get to hear everyone’s stories, where they’re from, and why they joined the Navy. It’s interesting to meet and get to know all sorts of people from every walk of life on such a personal level.”
Despite the wealth of new experiences, it is clear that Millea’s ties to home and family remain strong. She recently rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange, which she calls “a huge, huge thrill. It’s something that you see on TV daily but when you’re up there it’s so surreal. It’s thirty seconds and it passes by in a blink of an eye.” Her parents and her brother were visiting and knew she would be ringing the bell, but according to Millea, the best part was getting phone calls from friends and relatives back home, shocked to see her on TV.
As far as her family history goes, Millea credits her grandmother with sparking her interest in her Irish heritage. Millea’s great-great-grandfather, Patrick Leahy, was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1852 in County Tipperary. He eventually came to the U.S. as a boy and settled in Emmetsburg, Iowa in 1880, where he met and married Millea’s great-great-grandmother, a Brennan. The Millea side of her family also has Irish roots in County Clare.
When asked about what it means to serve her country during wartime, Millea mentions that her friends and family initially expressed nervousness over her joining the military. Millea responds, “From the outside looking in, without being part of it, it does look scary. But the more you know the inner workings of the military, it’s not as scary…I take a lot of pride in being able to serve our country. My capacity might not be as great as some of the other service members going out on frontlines, but especially during times of conflict, I think it’s important to do the duty I signed up for, and I wouldn’t change it.” She adds, “It’s a really huge honor to be a part of the crew of New York, especially because she stands for New York City’s perseverance—if we deploy with her it’ll show that we can be knocked down, but you won’t keep us down.”
The actual commitment of soldiers like Lt. Millea and the symbolic commitment of the USS New York, expressed through her motto, crest, and design, have deeply resonated with New Yorkers. Millea strongly attests to this—just being in New York City in her uniform has prompted people to come up to her and share their stories. Many of these people lost loved ones in the September 11th attacks and thanked Millea for her work aboard the symbolic ship. “There are so many people who never found remains, never had anything to hold on to,” says Millea.“This gives them something – each and every one of those people who gave their lives on 9/11 is part of that ship now. The crest of our ship [depicts] a Phoenix rising from the ashes, so I think it’s very much about rebirth.”
One story that Millea says she’ll never forget involved a woman’s brother who was killed on 9/11, which was also his birthday. Millea saw the woman give a talk and then thanked her afterwards for sharing her story and promising to think of her on the anniversary. The woman ended up giving Millea her bracelet, which is engraved with her brother’s name and the saying “All gave some, some gave all.” Millea says she wears it every day so that she can remember not just one story, but the stories of an entire country affected by the events of September 11th. Ultimately, it is these stories—of loss, love, and perseverance—that give the USS New York her real weight. “When things get rough, I can always look down and see why I’m doing this,” Millea says. “I’m giving up myself like everyone else has given something—‘all gave some’—so this is the some that I can give.”
Originally published in December 16, 2009