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Remarks by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at the United States Naval Academy Commencement (As Delivered)

Good morning, Class of 2023!

[Crowd responds, “Good morning!”]

I don’t think there’s anybody out there, Sean. Good morning, Class of 2023!

[Crowd responds with more energy: “Good morning, sir!]

Secretary Del Toro, Admiral Gilday, General Berger: thanks for your leadership of our Navy and our Marine Corps. 

And it’s great to see so many distinguished guests and local leaders, as well as members of Congress here today. Thanks for your support of this great Academy.

Vice Admiral Buck, family, friends, and above all graduates: I am absolutely delighted to join you on this proud day.

It is great to be here. 

Even though the first guy I met said, “Beat Army!”


And it is indeed an honor to help welcome the next generation of Sailors and Marines to what is, beyond any doubt, the finest Navy that the world has ever known. 


Now, you’re going to need to get used to some new titles. 

So congratulations, Ensigns and Second Lieutenants! Huh!


You know, I really appreciate the warm welcome today, especially for an old West Point guy like me. 

And as a former service-academy cadet, it’s a real pleasure to take care of this next piece of important business. 

So in keeping with the longstanding tradition: To all midshipmen serving restrictions for minor infractions, you are hereby absolved.

[Cheers and applause]

You know, I’ve always wanted to do that. 


You know, the U.S. Navy has been doing some pretty amazing things lately. 

Pushing the limits with cutting-edge platforms. Schooling the next generation. And confronting new dangers.

And that was just the first half-hour of “Top Gun: Maverick.”


As I look around this stadium, I see some very proud families and loved ones out there. 

You’ve been on this journey right alongside your midshipmen—from I-Day to plebe summer to signing those “two for seven” pledges. Your love and encouragement has given them the strength to keep going.

So graduates, today belongs to your loved ones too. And let’s give them a third round of applause. 


Let me offer a special word of thanks to the sponsor families. 


They open up their homes to exhausted mids—offering hot meals, and laundry, and a place to crash that isn’t “Mother B.” 

So thanks to all of you for you have done and what you continue to do in support of these great men and women.


And Vice Admiral Buck has also got a graduation of sorts coming up.  

Supe, you’ve led this brigade through incredibly challenging times. I want to thank you for your many years of service. And as your retirement beckons, we wish you fair winds and following seas. 


Now, graduates: I know that you’re feeling some powerful emotions today. 

Pride, gratitude, relief—and maybe a bit of shock.
And if you’re anything like my own academy class back in the day, you may be worrying about what’s next. 

And you may wonder whether you’re truly prepared to lead.  

Ensigns and Lieutenants, let me be clear: You are ready. 

And that’s not just because you’ll have a commission the next time that you walk off the Yard. 
It’s because of each and every time that you walked onto the Yard. 

You chose to come to this Academy. 

And despite challenges that nobody imagined, you chose to keep coming back, and to keep pushing, and to keep growing. 

You know, all those choices add up to character. 

And all those decisions add up to integrity. 

And all those deeds add up to leadership. 

And the way that you overcame obstacles at this Academy will show you how to conquer challenges outside of this Academy. 

You led the brigade with grace and compassion after the Academy family tragically lost two midshipmen last year. 

And I ask that we take a moment to remember Midshipman Taylor Connors and Midshipman Luke Bird.

Some of you have been hit with unexpected challenges. 

Maya Weiss learned last year that she was facing a battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

But last November, she rang the bell at Walter Reed—done with chemo and cancer free. 


And Maya, your classmates can’t wait for you to join them in the Fleet later this year. 

This class has also led throughout a global pandemic. 

COVID-19 disrupted your plebe year. It delayed rituals like climbing Herndon. It separated you from your classmates, as you were just starting to feel like a family.

But you hung in there. You took care of each other. You found ways to adapt, like firing up grills on the Yard for Thanksgiving dinner—or doing squats with jugs of water in your parents’ backyards when sea trials become “e-trials.” 

And when it was finally safe to gather again, you reunited with your classmates. And you made good use of that weekday liberty at O’Brien’s. 

[Laughter and applause]

Now, the Naval Academy’s new Midshipman Ethos records the core values that you’ve sworn to live by. 

You seek wisdom. You practice discipline. You treat others with dignity and respect. 

And you will defend our democracy with honor, courage, and commitment.

You know, those values aren’t just words that you recite. Those values are who you are. 

And that’s how I know that you are ready for the challenges ahead. 

As one of your predecessors once said, “We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.”

That was President Jimmy Carter, Class of 1947. 


And I’m proud that one of this school’s most distinguished alumni—a man of deep faith and a champion of human rights—is now honored on the Yard with the naming of Carter Hall.


Graduates, over the years, I’ve learned that leadership is not just what you do.

It’s who you are. 

And over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with some outstanding graduates of this academy. 

People like Carlos Del Toro, who came to America, as you heard this morning, as a refugee from Cuba—and went on to command a destroyer and serve as your 78th Secretary of the Navy. 

And his American journey reminds us how much is possible in this exceptional country. 

I’m also thinking of Michelle Howard, the Navy’s first female four-star and the first African-American woman to command a combatant ship. 


After she retired, Admiral Howard led the important commission to rename military assets after great American patriots who represent the very best of our history. 

And her career is an inspiration to anyone facing a tough task. 

“Some days,” she says, “you’ve just got to get your warrior on—and take that first step.” 

I’m also thinking of my junior military assistant, Lieutenant Colonel Jay Armas, Class of 2001. 

Now, this outstanding Marine is with me every day, morning until night. 

And every morning, when Colonel Armas briefs me on my schedule, he realizes that all those “chow calls” were actually good for something. 

And finally, I’m thinking of my former boss, Admiral Mike Mullen, who was the 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

He taught me some of the most important lessons of my career. 

And the first one was: don’t ever work for a Naval Academy graduate when Navy Football is in the middle of a 14-year winning streak. 


Admiral Mullen also taught me that a leader’s single most important job is to build and empower a great team. To encourage debate and diversity of views. And to take care of all of your people. 

And if it hadn’t been for Admiral Mike Mullen, I probably wouldn’t be here with you today. 

You know, naval officers have a special understanding of the power of teamwork. 

To keep a ship afloat or a submarine diving, the crew has to work together as one team—from the captain to the cooks. 

And that’s the spirit that makes American seapower so formidable.

And we need that spirit for the crucial mission that you’re all here to shoulder.

America’s seapower lets us sail, and fly, and operate alongside our unrivaled network of allies and partners, from the South China Sea, to the Gulf of Aden, to the Caribbean. 

It lets us project power around the world. 

And it helps us secure the sea lanes for the free movement of people, and goods, and ideas. 

Today, our Marines are showing the power of teamwork as they train alongside our allies in Japan and the Philippines to strengthen deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. 

Our Navy is driving forward our historic AUKUS partnership with Australia and the U.K., bringing together three great democracies to keep the Indo-Pacific free, and open, and prosperous.  

In Europe, our Sailors are operating shoulder-to-shoulder with our NATO allies. And the Navy has helped expand Ukraine’s maritime capabilities as Ukraine fights against Russia’s cruel and reckless war of choice.

So around the world, the Navy and the Marine Corps bring relief to disaster zones, they counter piracy and drug trafficking, and they defend the freedom of the seas, skies, and space.

And that’s what American seapower lets us do.  

Ensigns and Second Lieutenants: that is your mission. 

And your leadership will be at the very heart of America’s work to forge a more open and more peaceful 21st century. 

You know, our competitors openly challenge that vision. They want to replace the hard-won postwar system of rules and rights with a lawless world of autocracy and aggression. 

But the American flag atop a U.S. Navy ship has long been the symbol of hope for a more free and secure world. 

So graduates, you will deploy forward. You will travel the globe to defend our democracy. And you will learn that the lifeblood of the rules-based international order is actually seawater. 

That’s a big job. 

But you’re up to it. 

You know, exactly 30 years ago today, the Class of 1983 [1993] heard from a wise and scrappy member of the Naval Academy’s Class of 1958.

Senator John McCain held true to his values under impossible circumstances. 

And to the graduates sitting where you are, he said, “You have been taught much of what is necessary to lead other men and women in war and peace. You will learn much more from your approaching experiences. As Ensigns and Second Lieutenants, the character of the young Sailors and Marines entrusted to your care will be formed in large part by their appreciation of your character.”

And then Senator McCain added, “You are where leadership begins.”

Ladies and gentlemen, look around you. 

This stadium reminds us of the great battles in which those who came before you fought to defend democracy. Belleau Wood. Guadalcanal. Iwo Jima. Inchon. 

But what you don’t see here is all the battles that never occurred, all the wars that never erupted—because American Sailors and Marines showed up. 

They deterred conflict. They kept the watch. And they reminded the world of what America stands for.


As President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “A good Navy is not a provocation to war. It is the surest guaranty of peace.”

Class of 2023: wherever your career takes you, remind the world of what you stand for—and what America stands for.

Honor. Courage. And commitment. 

Democracy. Liberty. And the rule of law. 

The lessons of this academy will always steer you true. 

And when the fog rolls in, let the values that you have learned here be your lighthouse. 

Because your commanders will call on you.

Your teammates will look to you. 

And your country will count on you. 

And I know that you are ready. 

Because you are where leadership begins. 

Class of 2023: I am absolutely honored to call you my teammates and shipmates. 

And we will all be cheering you on as you make our country stronger, and our democracy deeper, and our world safer. 


May God bless you. May God bless your families. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.

[Standing ovation]