United States Coast Guard Academy
New London, Connecticut
11:49 A.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Admiral Zukunft, Superintendent and Admiral Rendón, faculty members, our distinguished honorees and guests, all the proud parents and family members, friends, and veterans gathered here at Cadet Memorial Field: It is my great honor to join you today for the 137th Commencement Ceremony for this exceptional institution to celebrate the extraordinary achievements and boundless future of the 208 cadets graduating today. The United States Coast Guard Academy Class of 2018. (Applause.)
And as I get started, I wanted to bring greetings from a good friend of mine and a great admirer of the Coast Guard; a leader that many of you heard from on this occasion a year ago. We spoke this morning and he asked me to pass along his congratulations, and his admiration, and his appreciation. I bring greetings from your Commander-in-Chief, the 45th President of the United States of America, President Donald Trump. (Applause.)
And it really is my great honor to say to the Class of 2018, on behalf of your Commander-in-Chief: Welcome aboard and welcome to the good fight.
Oh, and before I forget, the Commander-in-Chief gave me permission to hereby absolve all cadets of standing restriction for minor offenses, effectively immediately. (Applause.)
For more than 140 years, in the classroom, on the open waters, sons and daughters of liberty have come to the Coast Guard Academy to develop “sound bodies, stout hearts, and alert minds.”
Today, Class of 2018, you become the next “link in the chain.” Forever bound to those who came before you and to those who will follow in your footsteps long after you cross this stage.
To reach this point, you’ve worked hard every day for those 200 weeks. From Reveille to Taps, and beyond, you’ve been tested in mind, body, and spirit. You’ve been pushed. Pushed to your limits and sometimes beyond to achieve things that maybe even you never thought you could.
And just as importantly, every day as you grew from Swab to a First Class cadet, each of you has reaffirmed the choice you made just over four years ago.
Many people spend their entire lives searching for a calling. You found yours early. You were called to serve the greatest nation on Earth. (Applause.)
And to your undying credit, you answered the call, coming here to this Academy, dedicating your talents, your energy to saving lives, enforcing our nation’s laws, and securing our homeland in times of peace and in times of war.
To the men and women graduating today, you come from the rest of us but you are the best of us. You’re the pride of your family and you’re the pride of the American people. In a few moments, you will leave behind the cadet life, throw your covers skyward, and join that Long Blue Line as commissioned officers in the United States Coast Guard.
In addition to our graduates, there are many people we’re honoring here today. And I’m especially grateful to be here for the last commencement of the great Commandant of the Coast Guard that you just heard from a few moments ago, and an honorary advisor to the Class of 2018, Admiral Paul Zukunft. (Applause.)
Forty-one years ago, your Commandant sat where you all are sitting. And he probably doesn’t think it was really that long ago. Today, he’s on this stage because, both ashore and at sea, he has lived what he learned here at the Academy. He’s a man known for honor, respect, and devotion to duty.
And over the past four years, as he just reflected from his heart, you’ve shared together — you’ve shared together opportunities and moments in the life of your preparation. I know the Admiral has been a model of service and sacrifice that are hallmarks of the United States Coast Guard.
So would the Class of 2018 mind getting on your feet and showing just how much you appreciate the service, and the example, and the leadership of the 25th Commandant of the United States Coast Guard, Admiral Paul Zukunft. We are all in your debt. (Applause.)
Today is a day of celebration, but it’s also a day of appreciation — not just for this extraordinary faculty and for the people that have inspired you by their example, but especially, as your wonderful, talented student speaker just reflected, it’s a day to really celebrate those who believed in you — thought you could get here; people that helped you get this far: your friends, your professors, the crew and officers with whom you sailed during the summers, and of course, these incredible families.
You know, I can tell you, today, when your loved ones fix those bars on your shoulders, it will be one of the proudest days of their lives. And I know what I’m talking about. You know, other than my wedding day, I count the day that Karen and I fixed the bars on our son’s shoulders as one of the proudest days of our lives. It truly was.
You know, today is a proud and deeply moving moment for your loved ones. They believed in you, even when you didn’t. They supported you. They encouraged you to work hard to get here. And, in many cases, they prayed you through the last four years.
So before we go one step further, Class of 2018, why don’t you get on your feet one more time, turn around, catch the eye of your loved ones who are up in that crowd — your brothers, your sisters, your parents and your grandparents. Get on your feet. Just give them a wave, and make sure they know how grateful you are for the love, the support, and the prayers that brought you to this day. (Applause.)
Today marks the end of four years of education and training at a remarkable institution. But today is ultimately a beginning, a commencement. You’ve received your billets, new assignments. New adventures await.
Today, as you prepare to assume your duties as officers of the United States Coast Guard, I’m pleased to report to you, as the Admiral reflected, you do so at a time of historic investment in the Armed Forces of the United States. And as you accept the responsibility to lead Coast Guardsmen and women, I promise you: This Commander-in-Chief will always have your back. (Applause.)
Over the past 16 months, President Trump has already taken decisive action to rebuild our military, to restore the arsenal of democracy, to give our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and our great Coast Guard the resources and the training you’ll need to accomplish your mission and come home safe.
Just a few months ago, President Trump signed into law the largest investment in our national defense since the days of Ronald Reagan — (applause) — including, you’ll be glad to know, the largest pay raise for our Coast Guardsmen in nearly 10 years. (Applause.) And our men and women in uniform deserve every penny.
This historic investment provides more than $12 billion to the Coast Guard to rebuild your aging fleets, strengthen your vital assets — just as the Admiral just described — starting with the first of 25 new Offshore Patrol Cutters, as well as 2 new National Security Cutters, and 6 more new Fast Response Cutters, which are coming off the assembly line as we speak to support our border security efforts and our fight against terrorism across the world. We are going to give the best fighting force in the world the best equipment they’ve ever had. (Applause.)
And just as President Trump said at this commencement ceremony last year, your Commander-in-Chief has secured funding to deliver a new generation of heavy icebreakers that some of you will guide through the increasingly contested polar waters in the years ahead to advance America’s energy and national security interests across this vital region.
This summer, as you report for duty at your first assignments — as deck watch officers, engineers, pilots, and marine inspectors — you’ll see firsthand the difference that the these investments are already making, and you’ll see the commitment of your Commander-in-Chief to ensure that the Coast Guard remains “Always Ready.” (Applause.)
Truth is, you assume your watch at a time when your leadership and your service is needed more than ever before, because in our ever-shrinking world, more and more of the threats to the American people are local.
As you’ve already seen during your summer assignments, security risks that were once confined to far-flung corners of the world are now closer to endangering our homeland than ever before — from nuclear proliferation to radical Islamic terrorism, and rogue regimes that finance both.
At this very moment, the world’s most dangerous terrorist and criminal organizations are working to gain a foothold across the Western Hemisphere to threaten our people and our very way of life.
Across the wider region, criminal networks thrive where political corruption, economic instability, and porous borders undermine the rule of law. A tragic case in point is the ongoing collapse of Venezuela at the hands of the dictator, Nicolás Maduro. It’s been attracting drug cartels and organized crime groups from across the world to sell their dangerous goods and launder their profits. For many of them, the United States is the number-one target to export their drugs, their weapons, and even terrorists.
And the tri-border region that connects Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil has long been a haven for criminal networks with close ties to terrorist groups around the world, including Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist organization that is funded by Iran’s fanatical regime. And in recent years, that region has grown into a major hub for money laundering, human trafficking, drug trafficking, and even more.
You, the men and women of the United States Coast Guard, will be on the front lines to stop these threats and protect the American people. And we know you will do your duty. (Applause.)
You secure our communities by pushing America’s borders more than 1,500 nautical miles outward — out to sea, into the sovereign waters of friendly nations, where you work closely with our partners to fight drug trafficking, criminal cartels, and terrorist groups before they can ever reach our shores.
You’ll help reduce illegal immigration before it starts by promoting stability and the rule of law across our hemisphere, and reducing the violence and corruption that drive vulnerable people to risk their lives and flee their home countries in the first place.
You’ll defend American security by deploying to theaters of combat all over the world and directly supporting your counterparts in other branches of the service of the United States.
And you advance American prosperity — make no mistake about it — you’ll advance American prosperity by keeping open the arteries of commerce across our nation. With those new heavy icebreakers, you’ll open up new pathways of prosperity in the polar regions, benefitting our nation and our people for generations to come.
This is what the United States Coast Guard does, and that’s what all of you will be doing, and where you will be leading in the days ahead.
Make no mistake about it: All of what I’ve just described is a monumental task, in and of itself. But we know you’re up to the job because you made it to today. You’ve been given the honor today to wear the uniform of the United States and lead in that uniform. And it’s an honor to serve this great nation.
But remember, “To whom much is given, much will be required.” So as your loved ones fix those ensign bars on your shoulders today, remember they represent the profound responsibility that you now carry, a responsibility expressed by the credo that you live by: “Exist to serve. Serve with pride.”
As commissioned officers, you’re called not just to lead, but also to serve those under your watch. And this, I expect, will be one of the greatest honors of your lives, for the United States Coast Guard is filled with the toughest, bravest, and most dedicated Americans you’ll ever find. (Applause.)
The men and women of the United States Coast Guard have always been well known and widely respected for their patriotism, their professionalism, and their courage. But last year, the world witnessed the heroism of the United States Coast Guard almost like never before. In the span of less than a month — we all saw it, and America marveled — three of the strongest hurricanes on record struck our shores, tore through communities, left millions of our fellow citizens stranded, in need of lifesaving help.
Just days after Hurricane Harvey deluged southeast Texas with unprecedented flooding, Hurricane Irma ripped through the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Florida Keys, and all the way up to South Carolina and Georgia. And then, just as the waters were beginning to recede, Hurricane Maria hit, leaving 3.5 million Americans in Puerto Rico stranded without power or running water.
But for all that was swept away by these catastrophic storms, and for all that must be still be done to rebuild in their wake, the loss of life and property would have been so much worse were it not for the bravery and the courage of the men and women of the United States Coast Guard. (Applause.) It’s true.
It was all hands on deck for the Coast Guard, as search-and-rescue teams moved from one storm, to the next, to the next. All told, more than 3,000 Coast Guardsmen and women deployed in response to the hurricanes. They came from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. And in the end, they helped save the lives of more than 11,000 Americans.
I was lucky enough to meet some of those heroes shortly after it all happened, when Karen and I traveled to the communities that were hardest hit by the storms. The President and First Lady traveled down, and I know he took the opportunity, again and again, to express his admiration for the Coast Guard and the job they’ve done.
I met some real heroes, like Petty Officer Zach Burley, a rescue swimmer who braved the treacherous floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey to rescue those stranded beyond the reach of the Coast Guard’s helicopters and boats. With nothing more than a pair of flippers and an axe, Petty Officer Burley saved the lives of 34 men, women, and children. (Applause.)
Zach’s story is extraordinary; it’s one I’ll never forget. But the courage and the perseverance that he showed under pressure are actually ordinary for the men and women of the United States Coast Guard.
People like Petty Officer Ashlee Leppert, a flight mechanic aboard one of the first Coast Guard helicopters to respond to Hurricane Harvey. In the first three days of that storm, Ashlee and her shipmates pushed themselves and their helicopter to the edge of their limits — flying through blistering, gale-force winds, dangerously close to power lines and trees. And they rescued more than 40 people trapped on rooftops and whatever high ground they could find. It was an amazing act of courage and heroism. (Applause.)
And then there’s people like John Carlson, one of over 5,500 Coast Guardsmen who were actually evacuated from their homes because of the hurricanes. The Superintendent just talked about that. One week after the hurricane made landfall, John and his wife welcomed twin daughters into the world. Then they were forced to leave everything behind and evacuate to Austin, Texas, to wait out the storm.
But the Coast Guard never waits, and neither did John. He voluntarily packed up his gear, boarded a Coast Guard plane, headed back toward the storm, risked his life, and saved the lives of 68 Americans. (Applause.)
These are heroes — heroes all. But they’re emblematic of the men and women that you’ll be leading — you’ll be serving alongside in the days ahead.
And my word to each and every one of you today is a word of admonition. When you look at the courage and the extraordinary tradition of the United States Coast Guard, and you think about the privilege that will be yours after you cross this stage today, remember: To lead heroes, you must be a hero. To lead them, you must be worthy of them. You must be men and women of integrity, leaders of character. People follow people they believe in.
You know, over the course of my life, I’ve learned that the three most important qualities for successful leadership, in the armed forces or any other endeavor, can often be described as humility, orientation to authority, and self-control.
The first is humility. You’ll be entering your service as officers, but you should, right now, decide that you’re not going to consider others more important or better than yourself. Approach every problem in a spirit of humility. Approach every problem as a learner, as a listener. In multiple counselors, the Good Book says, there’s wisdom. The best decisions by the best leaders are made through counsel and collaboration. So have the humility to listen.
The second will be more familiar to you, it’s orientation to authority. You’ve learned it here; now, live it out. Follow the unified chain of command. Submit yourselves to the authorities placed above you. Trust your superiors. Trust your orders.
And finally, you’ve gone through a rigorous four years of training here. A time of great personal discipline. And I encourage you, don’t lose that. I think discipline is the foundation of all accomplishment. So practice self-control in your personal and your professional life. Leading others begins with leading yourself.
There’s another proverb that says, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is one who lacks self-control.” So lead yourself. Be an example of self-discipline to the men and women that you lead, and you’ll inspire them to do likewise.
Cultivate these virtues as you’ve already begun to do here at this great academy, and I know you’ll lead with distinction and effectiveness.
And lastly, I would say to each and every one of you, do it all with a servant’s heart. I’m somebody that believes in servant leadership.
You know, just this morning, on Air Force 2, I opened up that book I try to read every morning. I came across a story in the book of John, about where the Nazarene, it said, showed his men “the full extent of his love.” He did this not by demonstrating his authority, he did it by being a servant. Wrapped a towel around his waist, he washed the feet of those disciples. When they objected, the Scripture tells us that he said, “I sent you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” For he was the one that came not to be served, but to serve. So be servant leaders because you’ll be leading some of the best men and women in the United States of America.
Officers, you’ve been called to serve. Practice servant leadership in the care, and the concern, and the attention that you, as officers, demonstrate for these remarkable men and women of the Coast Guard that you’ll lead. Do all these things, and you’ll succeed.
I know you’re a little bit anxious. I’ve walked across a few stages in my life, and raised my right hand, and just hoped and prayed that I could meet the moment. So I know you’re feeling that right now. But you’ll succeed. Hew to your training, hew to these values, and every single member of the Class of 2018 will be an effective and distinguished leader of the United States Coast Guard.
If you do these things, you’re going to prove yourselves worthy of both the trust that your Commander-in-Chief is placing in you today, the trust the American people are placing in you today, and you will earn the respect of those you lead and those with whom you serve.
Class of 2018, today you’re joining the world’s greatest force for good — the Armed Forces of the United States of America. As you prepare — as you prepare for your first steps as commissioned officers, take the principles and precepts you learned here and make them the anchor of your life.
Wherever your duties take you, stay true to the inscription on the Quarterdeck of Chase Hall that reads: “Who Lives Here Reveres Honor, Honors Duty.” Hold fast to those words that you chose as your class motto: “Sacrifice of Self, Service to Others.”
And above all else, be confident that the promise you’ll make at the end of your oath, the prayer you’ll pray will be answered, for you will have God’s help as you serve this great nation.
And I have faith, as the generations have gone before that have served in this great and storied United States Coast Guard, that He who brought you this far will never leave you nor forsake you, “through surf and storm and howling gale.” That no matter where your path may lead you to fight, to save, that He will be there to calm your hearts, to calm the storm, and guide you through the waves as you serve this great nation. To each and every one of you, I say, Semper Paratus.
Bravo Zulu, to the Class of 2018. May God guide you and guard you. May God bless the Coast Guard and all our armed forces. And may God bless the United States of America. (Applause.) It is my great honor to be with you all.
12:18 P.M. EDT