By Karen Rubin, News & PhotoFeatures
Act ethically, with integrity. That was the running theme for the 82nd commencement exercises at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) at Kings Point, Long Island, NY, notably sounded by Defense Secretary James N. Mattis who delivered the commencement address.
“Always run the ethical midfield” and “Don’t celebrate victimhood” were two of the lessons Secretary Mattis offered the 187 newly sworn merchant marine and military officers in the Class of 2018. Four additional midshipmen will graduate later.
“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.
Mattis spoke of sacrifice and honor, saying, “This country is like a bank, you have to put something in if you take something out.” And to the graduates’ families, he said, “The only way our democracy will continue is if you raise young men and women like this who will commit to serve the country.”
He chastised those who would whine or complain or take up the mantel of “victimhood.”
“There are rocks and shoals ahead for you, whether you go into US Navy, Coast Guard, Army, Navy, Marines- especially for leaders. By that choice you are now going to be in a position where others count on you – those rocks and shoals are not just to avoid making bad choices, learning from mistakes, but you are there to assure your subordinates, those who signed a blank check to the American people, counting on you to lead them wisely and well… We need you today, probably more than any time, as you join industry under great competition, but need highly disciplined deck officers.
“And those going into other armed forces. We need those who are willing to go far from comfort, well lit avenues of life – you will go into uncomfortable situations – physically uncomfortable, even danger.
“As small as the Merchant Marine may be, it is essential to defense. You sustain our army, our ships – ferry supplies, soldiers [as well as essential commerce],” Mattis said, whose own father was a mariner from 1935-1949. “It’s in my blood to wander the world…These are turbulent times on land and sea.”
Indeed, the USMMA is the only one of the nation’s five federal service academies authorized to carry a battle standard as part of its color Guard, perpetuating the memory of the 142 Cadet-Midshipmen who lost their lives during World War II, carrying supplies to the fighting forces.
“War and sea are unforgiving environments,” Mattis said. “The lessons here will apply,” he said.
“Always run the ethical midfield.
“Be the men and women of integrity, honor, intelligence, dedication and competence. You don’t want to be anything less, because at end of day, have to live up to that standard.
“Take responsibility. In a country that is sometimes not known for this, remember who brought you up. Don’t celebrate victimhood. Life as leader is hard, embrace it, put to use when hard times come, take disappointment in stride, don’t fall into cynicism (in the armed services that’s another word for cowardice).
“Keeping your grace, your courage under pressure and not taking hold of victimhood.
“Chart your course through strong ethical waters – we need leaders who are ethical, source of strength, lifelong learners.
“Hold something sacred. The tradition of this service will only last as long as you embrace it.”
Mattis held up as a model of “moral courage” Captain Leonard LaRue who rescued 14,000 Korean refugees who had huddled along beaches, at great peril to his own men
“Before he could get to safe anchorage, 5 babies of refugees were born, not a single life lost. He was a leader not concerned with putting all on line, stoically dealt with it. Remember him. Don’t let his example be lost on compose heap of events.”
These themes of ethics and leadership were sounded with great maturity by the Valedictorian, Midshipman Matthew Thomas Pari: “We were taught lessons on leadership and success – from leaders good and bad as well as experiences at sea,” who proceeded to share these lessons:
Get angry and get over it –never lose control- can cause lapses in judgment – cause you to lose respect of followers or get fired – respect is lost more quickly than gained; be open to disagreement; have goals, set crystal goals; know everyone’s name, “they are more likely to follow you, work for you, respect you, so make everyone feel valuable”.
He added “Be consistent – in the ocean of leadership, use consistency as your vessel for respect and success. Show up for work, on time, be consistent in work ethic, discipline, expectations, be consistent and no one can question you.”
And finally, “Do not let your position affect your ego. You are all replaceable – don’t think you are invincible, right, entitled, because of position. You must work to earn respect, successes in life.”
“Look left, right – your days zero, your sea partners, study buddies, best friends, people couldn’t tolerate , these friendships are built strong enough to keep us afloat,… Never forget the journey, those by our side and those not with us today, during high and low points, remember who we are – Kings Pointers – resilient, intelligent, skilled men and women joining armed forces and maritime industry, joining those who came before, some who left lives on battlefield. We’ve gone through many storms here, come out stronger than before.”
Captain Nancy Wagner, Class of ’78, the first class that admitted women, the Distinguished Alumnus, spoke of her 40 years as a merchant mariner. She was one of the first eight female graduates, was the first female in Kings Point history to earn her Unlimited Master’s license in 1985, and became the country’s first female ship pilot in 1990.
“I never actually dreamed I would go to Kings Point,” she said, noting that her father was the USMMA class of 1945. “As little girls when I grew up were not allowed, but opportunity came and I took it, timing is everything – along with 3 four letter words: work, risk, and luck.
“When opportunity comes, seize it. Remember that. You control your own destiny, life is what you make it. You have unlimited opportunity due to your diploma, and your license – never ever let it expire – You worked too hard to get it.
“You are future leaders of maritime industry and our country, soon to begin your voyage with opportunities as well as obstacles, Hold steady as she goes – never deviate from your goals, your dreams. Persevere until you satisfy your ambition.
“Be proud but humble, you represent Kings Point in all you do, live by motto acta non verba, deeds not words, and give back.”
USMMA graduates ensure a steady stream of merchant marine officers who support the nation’s economic and security requirements in times of peace and war. Graduates from this year’s class represent nearly every state, as well as Malaysia and the Republic of Korea.
Rear Adm. James A. Helis, Ph.D., superintendent of the Merchant Marine Academy encouraged the class, which has endured some unusual challenges during their academy years, to enjoy the day. “Take in this moment,” said Helis. “You’ve earned it.”
He went on to challenge the graduating midshipmen to embrace their leadership role in the future. “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.”
“Here we are. We did it,” said Class President Christian R. Wittendorf, of Granger, Ind., as he reflected on the journey of the class. “All the studying and striving has paid off. We have come to what every Kings Pointer dreams of and strives towards: the day we walk across this stage into the next chapter of our lives.”
As part of the commencement exercises 64 graduates were either sworn in as active duty officers in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard, or will be sworn in at a later date. The remaining U.S. graduates will serve as Navy reservists in the Strategic Sealift Officer Program while working aboard deep sea vessels, offshore supply vessels, tugs, towing vessels, and international flag vessels.
Each congressionally-nominated graduate received a Bachelor of Science Degree and an unlimited merchant marine officer license from the United States Coast Guard, and an Officer’s Commission in the U.S. Navy or other branch of the military. In exchange for their education each has the option of sailing as a Merchant Marine Officer while serving in the reserves of any branch of the U.S. military, or serving on active military duty.
Here are more 2018 USMMA commencement highlights:
USMMA graduates serve the national security, marine transportation, and economic needs of the United States as licensed Merchant Marine Officers and commissioned officers in the Armed Forces. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Merchant Marine Academy. The Academy, which was established under the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, was dedicated as the United States Merchant Marine Academy in 1943 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is administered by the Maritime Administration under the auspices of the Department of Transportation.
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