Defense Secretary Mattis speaks at USMMA graduation

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Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis with Samantha Drake at the US Merchant Marine Academy 2018 Graduation in Kings Point. (Photo by Karen Rubin)

The graduates were visibly excited as they made their way into Brook Stadium at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy on Saturday. But perhaps the person most excited to be there for graduation was Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

“I’m out of Washington, D.C., and I’m so happy I could cry,” he said.

Mattis was the keynote speaker at the 82nd commencement exercises for the academy, where 187 new officers graduated and were cheered on by a crowd of about 4,500 family members and friends.

“I want to congratulate … the families who introduced you to a way of life that would put others first, that would make you think this country is like a bank where you have to put something in if you’re going to take something out,” Mattis said.

In his speech, Mattis went over the history of the merchant marine and extolled the work of past graduates in war and peace. Mattis said Kings Point was “near and dear to my heart” because his father, John West Mattis, served as a merchant marine in the 1930s.

He told the graduates that the road ahead would be difficult and to remember what they had learned at the academy to guide them through challenges.

“We need leaders who have a strong sense of ethics today,” Mattis said before recounting the story of Leonard LaRue, a merchant mariner who led his ship through mine-filled waters to rescue refugees during the Korean War. “You need to be a lifelong 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.”

After the speech, the academy presented Mattis with his father’s service decorations.

A majority of the graduates will serve as Navy reservists in the Strategic Sealift Officers Program while working on a variety of ships, ranging from tugboats to deep sea vessels. Sixty-four members of the graduating class were or will be sworn in as active duty officers in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force or Coast Guard. During the ceremony, both graduates and members of each department in the crowd stood to be recognized as the band played that department’s theme.

In addition to Mattis, the graduates were addressed by Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the academy superintendent, and distinguished alumni speaker Capt. Nancy Wagner, who was part of the first class at any federal service academy to admit women.

“Leading is both a challenge and a privilege,” Hellis said. “Rise to the challenge. Embrace the privilege.”

The graduates were also addressed by a couple of their classmates before they received their diplomas and tossed their hats into the clear, cloudless sky. Valedictorian Matthew T. Pari gave a list of advice, calling on his fellow graduates to have clear goals, to not be controlled by ego and to be consistent.

Class President Christian R. Wittendorf then gave several shoutouts to his classmates before congratulating them all on their accomplishment.

All the studying and striving has paid off,” he said. “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.”

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