Good afternoon! Thank you, Admiral Papp, for that introduction, and thank you to the class of 2012 for inviting me to speak today at your graduation, or as I’ve heard, roughly your 12th “culmination” since 2008.
By the way, I was given a particular challenge in writing this speech because I was challenged to see if I could fit the names of all sixteen of the Coast Guard’s 210’ cutters in this speech. Listen closely and I think you can have confidence you can count them all.
It’s good to be back at the Coast Guard Academy. I thank your Superintendent, Admiral Stosz, and members of the faculty who have helped get you to this point.
On behalf of your Commander in Chief, President Obama, congratulations to each of you. And thanks to all who have supported you: your families, your friends, your (undoubtedly relieved) parents. Let’s give all of them a round of applause.
As the Service Secretary of the Coast Guard, it is my honor to address you as you embark on a career of service to our nation.
After four years of studying with diligence, you enter active duty with the confidence instilled by the finest multi-mission maritime military education in the world.
You have learned both about teamwork and self-reliance, and you have remained resolute in the face of many obstacles. You are well on your way to becoming steadfast leaders.
And that’s critical, because once you leave here, you will be given a lot of responsibility very quickly. I was on the Cutter Kittiwake just a couple weeks ago, and the majority of her crew, including the Commanding Officer, were 25 years old or younger.
Leadership in Uncertain Times
So the qualities you have developed over the last four years, that strength of character, are exactly what our nation needs as your career gets underway during uncertain times.
Cadets, we live in a world of evolving threats and unconventional enemies; a world where the battlefield has no boundaries and has no uniforms.
You will don many hats as you leave this Academy, because it means a lot to be a member of the Coast Guard – you are rescuers, protectors, first responders, law enforcers, teachers, public servants.
You graduate in a 21st-century world anchored in neither the Cold War nor the conventional rules of warfare. In this ever-changing world, the only certainty is that you will be called on to carry out many missions around the globe:
You will help people who are in danger at sea. Last year, the Coast Guard rescued 3,804 men and women.
You will enforce our laws, ensuring that drugs and contraband stay away from our shores, and that our waters are protected from pollution and overfishing. Last year, the Coast Guard accounted for approximately 40% of all U.S., allied nation and partner nation interdictions in the drug transit zone.
You will stop human traffickers and others who are trying to come to our shores illegally, while saving those who have become stranded in crafts not worthy of the sea. Last year, the Coast Guard saved the lives of 2,474 refugees who otherwise would have drowned in their attempt to reach our country’s shores.
You will keep vital shipping lanes half a world away open to commerce – training and patrolling with allies to keep pirates at bay. Last year, the Coast Guard interrupted or defeated four pirate attacks.
You will help ensure the safety of America’s ports, as well as foreign ports that serve as the last points of departure to the United States. You operate as the Captain of the Port in forty-two locations around our nation.
And…you will support the defense of our nation during war. Last year, the Coast Guard has men and women in locations like Kuwait, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
And you know that no matter how routine the mission may seem, you must remain vigilant on unforgiving seas. Those in the Coast Guard who gave their lives in the last year bear silent but eternal witness to the risks of your chosen profession.
But while we know you would give your life – “dearly to an enemy, but freely to rescue those in peril,” as your Creed says, we as your leaders are committed to doing everything we can to ensure that you remain safe and that you have the tools and equipment necessary to succeed.
That’s why we invest in you, providing one of the finest educations in the world here at this Academy. That is why we are investing in new cutters, and helicopters, and other resources to meet your needs.
Our continued investment means that even as the world around us evolves, the Coast Guard will remain a durable and versatile multi-mission force, a force that never rests.
Preparing Future Coast Guard Leaders
But above and beyond equipment and technology, the Coast Guard’s work will continue to require people with a range of talents possibly unmatched anywhere else in public service.
And I have to say, after reviewing the research on your class, I am impressed. You have already distinguished yourselves in so many ways.
We’ve heard from Katie Schumacher, you Distinguished Graduate, who finished with a 3.97 GPA, despite a major time commitment of serving as regimental E.O.
Your Honor Graduate Justin Daniel finished with the highest GPA at 3.99.
Members of your class including Eric Doherty and Garrick Gillan helped designed and build the "SailBot" autonomous sailboat. Jacob Conrad, Nick Powell, Tom Kane, and Brian Gracey designed and built a “Mobile Biodiesel Batch reactor” that can actually pull up to a McDonald's, take the fryer oil, and produce diesel fuel on the ground—while ordering a Big Mac.
As an attorney myself, I was particularly proud to hear that David Rehfuss’ team won a worldwide “Competition on the Law of Armed Conflict for Military Academies,” beating Army, Navy, and Air Force! I hear we also beat Army in Action Pistol as well, so thank you.
Your class has excelled athletically as well:
The softball team won three games in one day earlier this month to come from behind, win the conference, and make it to the national tournament.
And Hayley Feindel overcame a lot to become, as the newspaper said, “the most accomplished athlete in the venerable history of the Academy.” Talk about dependable – she was conference Pitcher of the Year – for the third time – she’s a two time All-American, AND she’s the all-time Division III leader in wins and strikeouts.
And it’s only fitting that you’re good at water sports, with women’s Crew ranked 5th in the country, under leaders like All-American Sarah Jane Otey. If you need any help at the upcoming crew championships, by the way, I want you to know I’ve been named an Honorary Coast Guard Coxswain by Coast Guard Station Washington, where I had the chance to show off my small boat driving skills in the Potomac River, thank you very much.
Trevor Siperek, a two-time All-Conference Cross Country runner, is ranked near the top of the country at steeplechase, and is competing in the nationals later this month.
The list I have given is only illustrative, not exhaustive. In fact, your class has many other impressive achievements. No parade field rejects here!
After your Academy education, I am confident all of you will be well prepared to excel at whatever comes next, ready to join a long line of leaders in an organization with a rich history.
In short, I believe your extraordinary achievements and valiant service merit special consideration. Therefore, using the powers vested in me, I hereby absolve all cadets of the restrictions associated with minor conduct offenses!
But as much as you have accomplished so far, this is only the beginning.
One DHS and USCG Role
Remember, the Coast Guard does not carry out its missions alone - you are part of something larger – the Homeland Security family. More and more, we are working together as one DHS to protect against terrorism, secure our borders, and respond to disasters of all types.
Our components support each other by sharing information, leveraging resources, and conducting joint operations. And while complementary missions bring us together, it is the venturous spirit by all who willingly put service over self that bonds us as one DHS.
Embodying Core Values
That spirit shows in the way you will face the overarching challenge of the Coast Guard, and of DHS as a whole: the challenge of leading in an uncertain world.
You are the first class to be born after the end of the Cold War, and to grow up in the Internet age.
You have faced uncertainty and change throughout your lives. And the world around you will continue to change, often in unpredictable ways. You must think about how you will confront these challenges as proud Coast Guard Officers, sworn to uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States.
My advice is to always remember that you are decisive leaders of character, guided by the three Core Values of honor, respect and devotion to duty – three values that you've already made your own.
You’ve lived “honor” through your decision to serve, and the integrity you have upheld through your time as cadets. As honorable leaders of character, I encourage you to look to other leaders and learn about how they approached challenges. Understanding their successes – and perhaps more important, their mistakes – can help guide you through difficult times.
There is no clearer example of an honorable leader of character than George Washington. As much as we know about our first president, each generation finds that it has even more to learn.
Today, we have a picture of a complex figure who could have assumed near absolute power at the end of the American Revolution, but who resisted that temptation, voluntarily serving only two terms as president.
It is difficult to overstate how rare it is for anyone in history to refuse absolute power, or how much this selflessness shaped our nation. It is the very definition of honor.
And yet this deeply honorable man also had his flaws and struggles, as his biographers have noted. So let the actions of leaders inspire you, but let them also teach you that no one is perfect, and that our success comes despite our imperfections.
Now, we come to the core value of “respect,” which, in the Coast Guard, is all about treating the people around us with “fairness, dignity, and compassion.” And you have demonstrated respect already, in many ways:
Your compassion has shown through in your commemoration of the life of classmate Kenny Link, and the love and support you’ve shown his family since he passed on;
By building a children's home for a small community in Honduras, you have helped those who have next to nothing gain a measure of dignity.
Raising funds to fight leukemia and lymphoma is another example of your compassion; and accruing the most community service hours of any class in the past two years shows your dedication to building a fairer world.
You have lived respect, and I encourage you to live this value. Show it in how you deal with both your colleagues and your superior officers. Show it, as well, in how you deal with those under your command. After all, it’s difficult to inspire a crew if they sense you don’t respect them.
The third value is devotion to duty. You have embodied this value by volunteering to serve your nation, persevering through every obstacle of the last four years, and by remaining alert, even on a leisure cruise, noticing and rescuing stranded young boaters off Key West. And you will live this value in a thousand other acts, large and small, over the course of your careers.
For devotion to duty, I encourage you to follow the example David Henry Jarvis, first in the cadet class of 1883, and namesake of the Jarvis Inspirational Leadership Award.
As a First Lieutenant, he led his men, dogs and 400 reindeer in one of the greatest displays of devotion to duty in our history - the Overland Expedition. And while I know the graduates know about the story, let me briefly summarize it for you.
In November 1897, a fleet of eight whaling ships with some 300 people aboard had become stranded off the northernmost tip of the United States - Point Barrow, Alaska, high in the Arctic - and courageous rescuers were needed to relieve them.
And so America turned to her Revenue Cutter Service, now known as the Coast Guard.
On the orders of President McKinley himself, the Revenue Cutter Bear headed north, into the frigid Arctic winter, landing Lieutenant Jarvis and just two other men near Cape Vancouver.
Dauntless in the face of ice, snow, mountains and weather as cold as 60 degrees below zero, they traveled 1,500 miles at breakneck speed across the Alaskan wilds.
Halfway through, with the help of Native Alaskans, they gathered hundreds of reindeer – self-propelled food – and drove them the rest of the way to Point Barrow.
The whalers were saved, the nation was grateful, and the legacy of devotion to duty the Coast Guard would inherit was born.
That legacy lives on, as we were reminded this year. When the harsh winter placed Nome, Alaska, in peril, America turned again to the Coast Guard. With its heating oil supplies close to running out, the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy came to the rescue, clearing the path for an oil tanker, staying close, bringing her along, leading her forward until the cargo was safely delivered.
You can trace an unbroken line of devotion to duty from the valiant feat of First Lieutenant Jarvis's team to the men and women of the Healy.
And I am confident you will extend that line forward for decades to come in your own careers, in every way imaginable.
Because for all its history, the Arctic is still a young frontier that you can explore. For all our success against terrorists, our adversaries will adapt, and you will too.
For all we know about ocean science, there is still so much more to learn. And for all the advances in maritime safety, we still know that no ship is unsinkable, and there will always be tragedies to respond to and lives to be saved.
You are not only heirs to a great tradition in these areas, you enter a force that is vibrant and vigorous today. And you represent its future – a future that is undoubtedly and incredibly bright – a future where you will conquer challenges yet undreamed of.
You are ready. You are prepared. Go forward to meet these challenges. Semper Paratus!
Speech taken from http://www.dhs.gov/news/2012/05/16/remarks-secretary-janet-napolitano-us-coast-guard-academy-commencement and edited to match delivery.