The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) at Kings Point graduated 187 new merchant marine and military officers in the Class of 2018. Secretary of Defense James Mattis delivered the keynote address before a crowd of about 4,500, including family members of the graduating class, senior officers from the U.S. military, executives from the maritime industry, alumni and others.
Mattis spoke of duty and commitment and implored the graduates to never stop learning. “You need to be a life-long learner, so you are as strong when destiny does tap you on the shoulder to lead your crew or team through the rocks and shoals of life as you are today,” said Mattis. "Coming out of here you already have an institutional standard that will stand you in good stead anywhere."
Rear Adm. James A. Helis, Ph.D., the outgoing superintendent of the Merchant Marine Academy, encouraged the class to enjoy the day. “Take in this moment,” said Helis. “You’ve earned it.”
Helis challenged the graduating midshipmen to embrace their leadership role. “Leading is both a challenge and a privilege. Rise to the challenge. Embrace the privilege,” said Helis. “Go out and lead and change the world. Be the leaders of character that our nation needs, and those who sail and serve with you deserve.”
As part of the commencement exercises, 64 graduates were sworn in (or will soon be sworn in) as active duty officers in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard. The remaining U.S. graduates will serve as Navy reservists in the Strategic Sealift Officer Program while pursuing a career on shore or on board merchant vessels. In exchange for a federally-funded education, each graduate has the option of serving on active military duty or serving in the reserves while pursuing a civilian career. Each graduate received a Bachelor of Science degree and an unlimited merchant marine officer license from the United States Coast Guard, along with an officer's commission in the U.S. Navy or other branch of the military.
Mattis presides over Naval War College graduation
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis also presided over the graduation of the U.S. Naval War College's class of 2018. He called on the Navy's next generation of leaders to use their capabilities and character to tackle great-power competition with Russia and China and carry forward the fight against terrorism.
"We are counting on you graduates to live and breathe the 'fighting admiral' ethos, regardless of your rank or position, branch of service or nationality," he said. "Keep your wits about you . . . inspiring those you lead with humility and intellectual rigor, and reconciling war's grim realities with your political leaders' aspirations."
Mattis also used the occasion to lay out his view of the security challenges facing the Navy today, especially the rise of near-peer competitors. "[We] are witnessing a world awash in change - a world beset by the reemergence of great power competition," he said.
"For the first time since World War II, Russia has . . . redrawn international borders by force of arms in Georgia and Ukraine while pursuing veto authority over neighbors' diplomatic, economic and security decisions," Mattis said. "[Putin's] actions are designed not to challenge our arms at this point, but to undercut and compromise our belief in our ideals." Mattis suggested that Putin intends carry out these aims by weakening America's relationships with its NATO allies, diminish the appeal of the Western democratic model and undermine America's moral authority on the world stage. In addition, Moscow has proven to be willing to use conventional and irregular power in violation of international norms, the secretary said.
In addition, the geopolitical aims of the Chinese Communist Party pose a growing challenge in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, Mattis said. China is attempting to rewrite the post-WWII Western democratic order, the secretary asserted, and "it's unrealistic to believe today that China will not seek to replicate its internal authoritarian model elsewhere as it expands globally."
At the other end of the threat spectrum, the fight against non-state terrorist groups is still a serious battle. "It is the urgency of this fight that compels us all to act decisively against terrorism, denying terrorists the safe haven they seek and carrying out this counterterrorism campaign, by with and through our allies and partners," Mattis said. Despite the U.S.-led coalition's success against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, extremist organizations continue to threaten innocent civilians from Europe and Africa to South Asia and the Sulu Sea.
In response to these multifaceted threats, the Defense Department has reformulated its National Defense Strategy to focus on three core priorities, Mattis said: 1) building a more lethal military force, 2) strengthening U.S. military alliances and building new partnerships, and 3) reforming and modernizing the military for greater performance, accountability and affordability.
Structural reform is important, but success also depends on the capabilities of those on the front lines, Mattis said. "[We need you] to be at the top of your game mentally, physically and spiritually, and to work to maintain that standard throughout the rest of your career," he told the newly-minted graduates.