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Remarks by Secretary Jeh Johnson at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy 135th Commencement

Release Date: 
May 19, 2016

As prepared for delivery
May 18, 2016

Congratulations to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Class of 2016.

Congratulations to your families and friends.  Many of you traveled great distances to be here, and have spent years helping your Cadet reach this moment.  Congratulations.  You’ve raised a young man or woman of character, integrity, strength and discipline.  You should be very pleased that your Cadet wants to devote these things to serving the country.  Cadets, always remember: you did not make it here alone.

Class of 2016, you have distinguished yourself in a number of ways. 

You established the International Cadet Fund to enable international Cadets’ families to be here today.

You have hosted over 100 athletes of the Special Olympics as part of a community service outreach project, something the size of which has not been done in nine years.

You helped refurbish, clean and paint an elementary school in Aruba.

Cadets Tori Sutherland and Taylor Peace both attended the Model Artic Council sponsored by the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

Cadet Carrie Smith won the Pfizer Travel Award and will present her research at the annual Society of Toxicology meeting in New Orleans.

Cadet Sam Roets placed second in the International Law of Armed Conflict competition in San Remo, Italy.

Cadet Jackie Kubicko is a 2016-2017 Fulbright Scholar who will be spending the next year in the UK.

You have distinguished yourself in other ways, too.

James Engelhardt, known here as “two ribbons,” for his inability to distinguish between the “forward” and “reply to all” feature on email.

Several of you were placed on restriction for breaking and entering into the wardroom in the middle of the night to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  As your service secretary and civilian leader, I hereby absolve you for this action.  I absolve you because I once did the exact same thing. Only it wasn't just peanut butter and jelly.

In the 1970s, the food at Morehouse College was terrible. And we had rations; no seconds.  For four years, our choice was Church’s Fried Chicken, or starve.

One day junior or senior year, the kitchen staff failed to come in because of a snow storm. (A snow storm in Atlanta, Georgia amounts to a half-inch of snow).  A group of us commandeered the kitchen.  There were no rations that day. We emptied the freezers.  We cooked everything in sight.  There was a 30-minute break between breakfast and dinner.

Admiral, in the future: know that when a Cadet is hungry and needs a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the Secretary feels their pain.

Cadets, on a more personal note, I have two college-age children just about your age.  My son was born in 1994 and my daughter was born in 1995.  Like your parents, I am a Coast Guard dad, as my son is an officer-trainee in the Coast Guard’s CSPI program.  He looks forward to coming here in just a few days for OCI and a year from now for OCS.  Like you, he loves the Coast Guard and all that it does.  I’ve never seen him so excited.  I’ve never seen my son with an iron and an ironing board before.  Nor, before last year, had I ever seen him awake before 0700.

I am proud of him, as I am proud of you.

I am my son’s Coast Guard Dad literally, and I hope you will consider me your Coast Guard Dad figuratively. 

I was with you last year to mourn the loss of two international cadets who were killed in a car accident.

I was here some months ago to deliver a lecture on ethics.  Some of you may remember it.

Last year my family and I welcomed several of you to our home for Thanksgiving.

The future is bright for all of you.

The future is bright for all of you, because if you want to put on a military uniform and serve your country, the Coast Guard is the place to be!

On September 11, 2001, you were only about 7-years-old.  Many of you may have no recollection of it.  For those of us in national security a generation or more ahead of you, we are defined by it.

In the post 9/11 period, we sent thousands of men and women in military uniform off to Afghanistan and Iraq; many never came back.  We are still deployed around the world to address the global terrorist threat, but on a much smaller scale.

Today, the homeland security picture is more diffuse, and more complicated.  We live with the prospect of terrorist-inspired attacks as well as terrorist-directed attacks.  We live with the threat of home-grown violent extremism that could strike in a number of ways on a number of fronts.  Cyber attacks and cyber attackers are becoming more sophisticated.  Global warming presents challenges.

For today’s homeland security, we must be vigilant militarily, in law enforcement, in our partnerships with state and local law enforcement, with the private sector and the public, in counterterrorism, counter-narcotics, aviation security, maritime security, border security, port security and cybersecurity.  Today’s Coast Guard is involved in almost all of this.

In any domestic table-top or training exercise to emulate possible real-world threats, the Coast Guard often has a piece of the action.

What I’m telling you is that today the Coast Guard’s mission is as important and as relevant as it’s ever been.

I’m excited for the future of the Coast Guard.

I’m excited for the future of the Coast Guard because we are building you a new fleet of vessels.

With the continued support of the President and Congress, we have built you a new fleet of National Security Cutters, we are building you a new fleet of Fast Response Cutters, and we are on track to build you a new fleet of Offshore Patrol Cutters.  We are in the design phase to build you a new heavy icebreaker.

I am excited for the future of the Coast Guard because I see the character and talent of the young men and women who are entering the Coast Guard, continuing to build on the character, dedication and strength of the Coast Guard past and present.

I hope everyone here has seen the movie “The Finest Hours.”  The movie is a true story, about Bernie Webber, who, despite the slim odds of surviving, successfully led a crew of three men out to sea in extreme weather in the 1950s to find and rescue survivors of a tanker’s sinking stern.

Stories like Bernie Webber’s continue in the Coast Guard. 

In February of this year, the Coast Guard rescued seven fishermen off the coast of Long Island in 10-12 foot waves, strong winds and rain.  The Coast Guard vessel capsized, and each crew member swam safely to shore.  A Coast Guard HH-65 helo from Atlantic City acted quickly to finish the rescue.

Piloted by a highly skilled 19-year-old Master Helmsman, last year the national security cutter STRATTON, on a four-month voyage, seized 31 metric tons of illicit drugs worth about $1.1 billion, and engaged in the largest single drug seizure from a submersible vessel in Coast Guard history – 12,000 pounds of cocaine worth $181 million.

More and more, the Coast Guard is a vital part of our overall homeland security mission. 

That mission is reflected in the new mission statement for the Department of Homeland Security, and all of its components, that I released one week ago. It reflects the input I received from some 3000 of our people across DHS.  It was typed on my keyboard, but, hopefully, it reflects your voice:

“With honor and integrity, [you] will safeguard the American people, our homeland, and our values.”

 I expect this to be my last commencement speech here.  I’m delivering a total of seven graduation speeches this spring.  For this one, I see no reason why I can’t share with you what I’m telling the other six civilian audiences. 

Look around you at your classmates.  This group of 186 of you will never again be together.  These are your last moments as a unit.  From this day forward, when you gather as a group for a reunion, someone will always be absent.  That’s the sad part.

The good news is that, in your life, from this day forward, you will see and accomplish things that far exceed your own present imagination. I guarantee it.

Thirty-seven years ago, when I sat where you are as a graduate of Morehouse College, there was no internet, no GPS, no digital camera, no blackberry, no cell phones, no iPhones, no iPods or iPads, no Netflix, no Snapchat, no selfies, no podcasts, no Facebook, no FaceTime, no Skyping, no WhatsApp?, and no Department of Homeland Security.  I listened to music on vinyl records and called home with a dime and a pay phone in the hallway of my dorm.  I’m 58.  I’m really old. 

It would have been inconceivable to me then, that, in my lifetime, the United States would have a black president, or that I would serve in his Cabinet.

How many of you parents have seen the 1967 movie classic: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”  In the movie a white college student meets an older black man, Sidney Poitier, at a university in Hawaii, falls in love with him, and brings him home to San Francisco to meet her parents for dinner.

The daughter wants her parents to approve of this controversial relationship in just a few hours, before they get married. The parents, played by Spencer Tracy and Kathryn Heburn, are shocked.

The movie was made in 1967, at a time when interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states.

I recently re-watched the movie, on something else that didn't exist in 1979, On Demand TV.

There is an incredible question and answer exchange between Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier, which I had forgotten:

 “HAVE YOU GIVEN ANY THOUGHT TO THE PROBLEM YOUR CHILDREN ARE GOING TO HAVE?

“YES, AND WE’LL HAVE CHILDREN. 

IS THAT THE WAY JOEY FEELS?

SHE FEELS THAT EVERY SINGLE ONE OF OUR CHILDREN WILL BE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, AND THEY’LL HAVE COLORFUL ADMINISTRATIONS.”

This statement, from a fictional movie in 1967 was made in jest, a throwaway line, to reflect the naïve optimism about the strength and wonder of this country. 

But, in fact, at that moment, there was already a six-year-old boy who was the child of a white woman and an older black man who had met at a university in Hawaii and married.  And that young man is now the President of the United States.

And, I can tell you first-hand he has a colorful Administration.

Each one of you will enter into service with great responsibility. From the start you will have to manage risks and threats, and will be asked to carry out difficult missions around the globe.  After today some of you will go to flight school, will process migrants in the Caribbean, will oversee disaster response in the Gulf Coast, or will lead ships into the Arctic. Your jobs will be difficult and will demand your sacrifice. You will continue to be tested and challenged. 

I have high confidence in your ability to do the vital work of the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security.

Congratulations and thank you for embarking on this incredible journey, and for becoming the newest officers of the United States Coast Guard.

Last Published Date: May 19, 2016
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