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Transcript: Secretary Buttigieg’s Commencement Address to the United States Merchant Marine Academy Class of 2022 June 18, 2022 Kings Point, New York

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Thank you very much, Admiral Phillips, for that introduction, and for your leadership of the Maritime Administration.

Good morning to all. It is a true honor and a pleasure to be here at the Academy, and to be with you all on this great day. And it’s nice to see for myself Tomb field, where—without putting undue pressure on our underclassmen—I will note my high expectations for further victories to keep that Secretaries’ Cup right where it belongs, which is in my office. [applause]

I also want to thank you all for the warm welcome since we arrived yesterday—particularly since I was informed that the Class’s first choice of keynote speaker was in fact, Jimmy Buffett. [laughter, applause] For what it’s worth, I looked into what whether we could make that happen for you, but his people pointed out that even though this is a morning ceremony, it was going to be five o’clock somewhere, and so he would be unavailable. [laughter]

In all seriousness and sincerity, I’m very honored to be here at the Academy, grateful for the chance to address this extraordinary class of midshipmen, and to be alongside such esteemed leaders, who are with me right now. 

I want to thank Vice Admiral Buono for his deep commitment to the Academy and for his service. Like this class, you are now embarking on your next chapter, Admiral, and we wish you and Ginger the very best for the future. [applause]

It’s also a great honor to be alongside General Van Ovost—a tough act to follow. Since her historic appointment as Commander of USTRANSCOM, the general has continued to inspire so many to break barriers, just as she did. 

And I want to recognize TRANSCOM Deputy Commander, Vice Admiral Mewbourne, who is retiring later this month after 40 years of leadership in the Navy. 

Both the General and the Admiral have done so much to support Merchant Mariners and Academy midshipmen, including making sure that next year’s class gets the sea time they need to qualify for their licenses. [applause]

I want to thank Rear Admiral Wettlaufer and the Military Sealift Command, as well as the Coast Guard and the Navy for their support at every step. 

And of course, a huge thank you to Admiral and Administrator Phillips, our Maritime Administrator, Deputy Administrator Lucinda Lessley, and Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg for the late nights, difficult and important conversations, and tireless work that they have put in on behalf of these graduates. They care deeply about this Academy, and now I have an even better sense of why.

From faculty and staff, to family and friends, to the alumni who do so much to support this institution, so many have gone above and beyond to support this class in unprecedented challenges, and stood by them at every step on the road to this day. 

But most importantly, of course, let me address myself to the Class of 2022: Congratulations, you’ve made it! 

For every class of Kings Pointers, that’s an extraordinary achievement—distinguishing yourselves both in the classroom and at sea in a demanding experience that few ordinary university students could imagine. 

But for your class: what you have worked through in order to be here, at this day, marking this occasion, will be a source of well-deserved pride for the rest of your lives. And the character that you have shown to get to this point will serve you well—which is a good thing, because America is going to need you more than ever.

As our nation continues to deal with a once-in-a-century pandemic that’s claimed a million American lives; as new security threats present themselves around the world; as our entire country has come to realize, belatedly, that a technical-sounding term like “supply chain” in fact refers to the lifeblood of our economic security; you will be needed and called upon in ways that we cannot even fully predict right now, but certainly know, that they will demand the very best of the skills and the grit that you have demonstrated in your years as midshipmen. 

And you have demonstrated that resolve and resilience in truly extraordinary fashion, against extraordinary challenges. For over two years, the pandemic upended Academy life, disrupting so many of the things that make the experience here special—from formations and parades, to the simple ability to break bread in Delano Hall. 

Yet you have stepped up in remarkable ways, working every day to keep the regiment on its feet. 

In particular, I want to applaud Regimental Commander Josh King, and former Regimental Commander Liam Pickett, who led this class through such turbulent waters. Both have been exemplary leaders, and extraordinary advocates for all midshipmen. 

This Academy, which trains and educates the majority of our strategic sealift officers, is vital to our national security. And the Academy—and your service as mariners, SSOs, and members of the Armed Forces—might well be as important as ever in our history. 

Which brings me to perhaps the most important thing—other than my congratulations to the graduates—that I want to communicate today, which is that now more than ever, the Merchant Marine Academy is a deeply and enduringly important part of our economic and national security, fully deserving of our full support. [applause]

I want you to know that this Administration and our Department are firmly committed to ensuring that the Merchant Marine and USMMA can succeed and continue to meet their vital mission in the coming decades. 

From the proud history of this institution, to its model of providing the opportunity for at-sea training on commercial vessels, Kings Point represents a unique and invaluable asset to the American people.

In times of conflict, it is our mariners who provide critical supplies and military sealift capability when the nation calls—logistical abilities whose fundamental importance I saw during my own time in the military. 

And in times of peace, it’s our mariners who keep our economy running. 

Whether you are headed into active duty or commercial service, the work before you is vital, and the training you have had here is essential. 

Yet for far too long, you have been asked to do more with less. 

This Academy, and the maritime industry as a whole, have gone decades without the level of investment that they deserve. 

I’m sure there were times when you felt the impact of that underinvestment in daily life here. And it reflects how all Americans have felt impacts from outdated infrastructure this past year, as supply chain deficiencies rippled across our entire country. But we know what the needs are right around here.

And it’s long past time to ensure that we provide the next generation of mariners with the support that they deserve. [applause]

That's why we’re standing up for more funding for the Academy. Congress recently approved over $15 million—[applause]—I see that we’re hitting a nerve! [laughter] Congress recently approved over $15 million for us to provide new resources to the Academy and address long-standing maintenance and repair issues. And we’ve requested nearly $100 million in our budget for next year, including more money to repair campus facilities and ensure your safety. [applause]

And of course, this comes in the context of the broader need to modernize maritime infrastructure, which will be served by President Biden’s historic infrastructure law, so that the infrastructure that you’re going to go out and work with every single day is as it ought to be. 

We’re working to strengthen our ports and inland waterways, so they can handle more freight and operate safely. And with an eye to the climate threats of the future, we’re working on everything from new clean shipping routes, to innovative alternative fuels that will shape this industry and serve it well for generations to come. 

All those investments are going to mean more job opportunities and safer working conditions for those of you going into commercial service. And I also hope that later down the road, some of you will find your way to joining us at DOT to help us continue to strengthen our Merchant Marine and improve maritime infrastructure for further generations of mariners. 

USMMA trains world-class mariners, and you deserve world-class resources and facilities, and we will never stop working to make sure you have them—here at the Academy, and wherever your careers take you. [applause]

From recovering from the pandemic to modernizing our infrastructure, we have no shortage of important and urgent work ahead of us to support Merchant Mariners.

And there’s one more challenge we must discuss—even when, or especially when, it’s not easy. In recent years, many sectors, many institutions, and communities in America have been reckoning with the harms of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Now is a time, long past time indeed, when we must confront the unique challenges around sexual assault and harassment present across the maritime sector, and impacting students at this Academy. 

I want to express my profound admiration for the courage of every survivor who has come forward to share their story, knowing that it might help someone else. And I want to applaud all who have supported them, including the students, faculty, staff, alumni, victim advocates, maritime unions, and commercial carriers who have stepped up to fight for the change that is needed. 

Everyone must join in declaring that sexual assault has no safe harbor in the maritime industry. But that is only the beginning. As every Academy midshipman knows, it’s not our words that matter, but our actions —Acta Non Verba. 

And once again, this class has taken that motto to heart. You’ve championed victim advocacy. You’ve demanded better mental health services. And you have shaped, in a very real way, so many of the policies we’re now putting in place to support survivors, hold perpetrators accountable, and most important of all, prevent such crimes from happening in the first place. 

Our new EMBARC program, which we designed and shaped with important input from so many of you, seeks to do just that. Ten companies have already enrolled in it. Advancing EMBARC is critical to the success of commercial at-sea training for our midshipmen, and I commend the companies that have already enrolled, and urge every U.S.-flagged carrier to follow their example as soon as possible.

As the next generation of maritime leaders, you are poised to help change not just policies, but the culture of this industry itself. That is the wider challenge, and we will join you and support you at every turn along the way. 

This, too, is a matter of national security. Not only does every mariner deserve to be treated with basic respect and dignity—but we recognize we cannot have a strong and effective Merchant Marine without a bedrock foundation of safety, and a culture of trust and accountability. 

At a time when we badly need more courageous, passionate, dedicated mariners like you, we’ve got to do everything in our power to ensure that all are safe and welcome in this vital industry.

And we must act in the knowledge that the most important part of the maritime sector—however much pride we take in our institutions and in our ports and our technology and our vessels—the most important part, of course, is our people. 

We will continue working to support mariners, the Academy, and this vital industry, pushing for the important changes you have demanded and deserve. 

But the heart of that change will be you. In a matter of minutes, you will be graduates. You will be officers. Service members. You are already professionals. And you will be something even more than that: the newest exemplars and stewards of America’s foundationally important relationship with the seas. 

This is a season of great consequence, and so your choices and your character will be of great consequence. And I have no doubt you will meet the consequential moments ahead with honor. 

You’ve proven equal to every challenge that has come your way in four years. And I want to commend you, once more, for the extraordinary commitment, compassion, and dedication it took to reach this moment—because those very qualities are exactly what we need right now. 

Along with that appreciation and that charge, there is one last thing I would like to offer you. 

The Secretary of Transportation’s Outstanding Unit Award Gold Medal is the highest honor that I can bestow. It’s been awarded only a handful of times before. But I can say with confidence that this remarkable class of graduates deserves it. And I’m grateful for the chance to award it to you today. 

A member of your class will receive it on your behalf, and I will read the citation in a moment. [applause]

Class of 2022, Attention to Award. [audience stands]

“When their nation needed them, during a period of severe global maritime supply chain disruptions and a persistent shortage in licensed mariners, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy midshipmen at the Academy between March 13, 2020 and June 18, 2022 overcame the unprecedented challenges associated with the COVID-19 global pandemic to complete their educations, and maintain military bearing and esprit de corps. 

Throughout the pandemic, midshipmen demonstrated perseverance, resilience, and innovation as they worked to earn—including through virtual learning—their licenses and diplomas. 

The success of these midshipmen represents a superior achievement that has strengthened America during a moment of need. As a result of these efforts, the members of the USMMA Classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022 graduated on time and ready to advance the national security and economic interests of the United States as licensed merchant mariners, strategic sealift officers, and commissioned officers of the U.S. Armed Forces. 

The Outstanding Unit Award has been granted on only a select number of exceptional occasions—and the awardees designated to receive this citation deserve to join that distinguished group.”

So, I’d now like to pin this ribbon on Midshipman Nix, and present to him, on behalf of the entire class, this medal, which will be hung in a place of honor here at the Academy. [applause]

Thank you all for your service—the service you have undertaken while here, and the service you will pursue in the years ahead. As you were. Deo adjuvante non timendum. Honor those words, and you will do very well indeed. Thank you, and congratulations once more. [applause]