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Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks Remarks for the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Commencement Address

Thank you very much, John, for that kind introduction.

Good morning, everyone.

Vice Admiral Nunan, congratulations on a historic first year, and thank you for your exceptional leadership of this Academy. Rear Admiral Ballard, thank you for your commitment and service to this Academy and to this outstanding class. And to Rear Admiral Phillips and all the distinguished guests on stage and in the audience today, thank you for supporting these midshipmen since plebe year to now, and beyond.

It is an honor to be here and celebrate with all of you as these graduates transition from midshipmen to ensigns and second lieutenants.

You know, this class has accomplished so much already.

Completing plebe year and becoming midshipmen is a major accomplishment. But surviving your plebe and your sea years during a global pandemic and separated from many of your classmates brought a whole new level of challenge.

But you all didn't just survive, you thrived.

I am deeply impressed by the breadth of your leadership and your commitment to public service. You are midshipmen. But you are also EMTs and volunteer firefighters. Tutors and guide dog trainers. Club leaders and humanitarian aid workers. All-American athletes and trailblazers.

In fact, you are the first class to ever have two female regimental commanders. And, you're the first graduating class to have a female Superintendent.

And for the first time in 20 years, the football team beat Coast Guard, and brought home the Secretaries' Cup four years in a row, so, in my book, you are also the champions.

If all of this is a reflection of your future, and I believe it is, your potential is endless.

And to all the parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, close friends and coaches: the kids are alright. In fact, as you can see they're more than alright, and they're no longer kids.

How proud you all should be of your graduates. Thank you for all you've done to support them as they crossed the finish line and every stop along the way. And thank you for all you will do to support them in the future.

And to this year's graduating class, congratulations.

You've endured school exams, last week's demanding licensing exams, tests of your physical strength and stamina, and, tests of your will and your patience. And those are just the trials and tribulations you've faced in the past three weeks, and I bet you were thrilled to ring the bell after it was all over.

Not to mention, while other college students might've been spending their summers vacationing or taking a breather, each of your summers were committed to working and completing credit hours.

So, your work and determination over the past four years is a particular point of pride for all of us here today, and a well-deserved congratulations is in order to each of you on this major achievement.

Kings Point is a special place to be from. And I know in these last weeks as midshipmen, there has been quite a bit of reflection on that.

On all you've overcome to get where you are in this moment and what you've achieved.

On how much you have stretched yourselves and grown.

And the memories you will take with you, including those gorgeous, storybook sunsets over Long Island Sound that I've heard so much about.

Whether you're commissioning today into active-duty service in the Navy, Marine Corps, Army, Coast Guard, or Air Force or to serve as a Navy Reservist, while you work in the U.S. maritime industry, all of you will be crucial in advancing the U.S. military's top priority: defending this nation. And while we confront many challenges around the world, our greatest challenge is outpacing our strategic competitors.

Take the challenge we face with the People's Republic of China, which is the only strategic competitor to the United States with the will, and increasingly the capability, to remake the international order that's given so much benefit to so many for so long.

Our goal is to deter aggression, because competition does not mean conflict.

And part of deterrence is making sure our adversaries understand the costs and folly of pursuing outright conflict.

As in any competition, our lead is never guaranteed. We have to earn it continuously. It really is truly all hands on deck.

So, America will need her merchant mariners. 

As you've learned here at King's Point, U.S. Merchant Marines have long played a vital role in contributing to the defense and security of our nation.

From the enormous sacrifices merchant mariners made in World War II, when they experienced the highest casualty rates of any U.S. service, to conflict in Korea and Vietnam, when mariners brought between 75 and 95 percent of U.S. troops and supplies to those theaters. To the first Gulf War, when your predecessors delivered over 12 million tons of vehicles, helicopters, ammunition, fuel, cargo, and other supplies and equipment.

To the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which merchant mariners under Military Sealift Command supported by shipping tens of billions of gallons of fuel, and hundreds of millions of square feet of combat equipment and supplies, enough to fill thousands of fields like this one.

Simply put, again and again throughout history, America's merchant mariners have delivered.

And today, merchant mariners remain an indispensable component of our national defense, because they continue to deliver:

•             To Europe, where more than 70 vessels have helped bring supplies and equipment to U.S. allies and partners after Russia once again invaded Ukraine;

•             And to the Indo-Pacific, where multiple strategic sealift ships provide critical maritime prepositioning of U.S. military equipment and supplies.

What so many of you will do as merchant mariners enables our ability to project power globally,  to respond to crises and contingencies on short notice, and to campaign in support of joint operations.

It won't surprise you that we do things differently than our competitors. That's a big reason why nations and peoples around the world choose the United States as their foremost ally or partner.

For instance, we don't use maritime militias in ways that undermine regional stability, international law, and countries' shared desire for a free and open Indo-Pacific.

We don't seek to invade our neighbors.

And we don't plan to use civilian ferries as camouflage for military action. That would only bring risk to civilian shipping. But it's not primarily the equipment or tactics that make our military the world's best.

Perhaps the most important advantage we have over our competitors, is you. Your talent, your training, and the responsibility we place in you, all of which will serve you well as you enter a complex world.

They will help you navigate an operating environment that's challenging, complicated, and contested.

But in the face of friction and fog, I know you, our newest ensigns and second lieutenants, active-duty and reserve, will be America's saving grace just like your predecessors.

In the U.S. military, we're confident in our junior officers' ability, in your ability, to get the job done. To lead. To "figure it out," as you've often heard throughout your education here.

That's not true of our competitors.

So, the responsibility we place on you that is a key ingredient in the secret sauce that makes our military the finest and fiercest fighting force in the entire world.

And that's why, here at the Merchant Marine Academy, the United States of America has been investing in you, making you into leaders. And we are all impressed by the results.

You received an education and training that is second to none and fitting for the challenges that you will soon face.

You had the opportunity to forge unbreakable bonds with all those around you. With professors, friends, and classmates, all of whom care deeply about you and your future and vice versa. And that is a life-long gift.

I'm sure you learned very quickly that you could not get through the demands of student life here alone. And believe it or not, you will soon learn that the need for teammates, the need for your shipmates, might be one of the most valuable takeaways of your student career, your military career, and your life.

Every graduate here has their own story to tell about why they chose service. A few days ago, I spoke with some of you about this. 

Some told me you decided to serve because you wanted to continue the camaraderie that you've already experienced here at the Academy.

Others have been called by a sense of adventure. As a class you've crisscrossed the seas to hundreds of ports around the world. Very few people can say that.

Some of you have parents, grandparents, older siblings, or friends that preceded you, and through their stories of service, you saw yourself and envisioned how the military could be part of your narrative, too.

Others were steered by an inner compass to be part of something larger than yourself. Or, you were inspired to do something that would challenge you each and every day. And the military offers all of these things: adventure, a challenge, a common purpose, and so much more.

Whatever your reasons, whatever those values that drove you here, because of your education and training at Kings Point, you are ready to put them into practice.

You have survived the rigor baked into your academic program. And you've overcome adversities that no one could have predicted.

And now, the people of the United States are trusting you to lead. And I can say this with confidence: you have endured the best test of what is to come. And the fantastic news is that, you have succeeded. And there's no reason to believe that streak won't continue.

That should give you confidence.

So, here's my advice.

You will have tough calls and have to make the right choices.

You will have challenges, and the only way out will be through. 

You will rise and fall as a team, and that means you will have to look out for your people, those to the left, the right, and in front and behind you. And you will need to let them in to look out for you.

No matter where you serve, in the military or civilian careers, you will be part of a unit. Ensuring the trust and safety of that unit is paramount to maintaining cohesion, connection, and camaraderie.

So even as we, as a Nation, put an extraordinary amount of trust in you to advise and provide counsel; to use your own discretion to solve problems and make timely decisions; and to execute. We expect you to earn that trust. It's not just a privilege. It comes with responsibility to complete the mission and take care of your people. When uniformed leaders take care of their people, U.S. military readiness skyrockets.

And who is responsible for taking care of their people? Who is a leader? Every one of us who is called to serve, in civilian or military capacities. That's why Secretary of Defense Austin has made "taking care of our people" a top priority for every leader, every service member.

The heart of knowing how to lead, and leading well, is knowing what's right, what's wrong, and acting on it. It's that simple. Whether you're at sea or ashore; whether you're the lowest ranking or the person in charge. If you see bad behavior, say something. Do something, do the right thing.

Don't tolerate hateful speech or hazing or bullying or sexual harassment—often a precursor to sexual assault or sexual assault itself.

I know that members of this class have championed victim advocacy. You've shaped policies like through EMBARC, to ensure every mariner builds a respectful culture. And you've demanded support to survivors of sexual assault and other crimes to hold perpetrators accountable to help prevent these crimes from happening in the first place. You've also demanded better mental health services and the recognition that mental health is health.

And, I know for a fact that the formidable bonds that you've made and the trust you have built with one another have been defining aspects of your experience here at the Academy.

That's no mistake. That's actually a feature of your education. And you will soon see how far it will take you. And how it's meant to bring out the best in you. So, when crises occur, step up. Be a leader. And take care of your people.

Each of you deserves the careers that you envisioned, and that you will continue to work hard for. I, for one, have been struck by your stories of grit and determination.

Take one of your fellow midshipmen, who, on his second sailing expedition, was bitten 14 times by a black widow spider. With venom 15 times stronger than that of a rattlesnake, he was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down.

He recovered. And today, he will be commissioning active duty Navy.

And take another classmate who volunteered his rare free time in the academy's EMT program and ended up delivering a baby in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

These are only two of the many of your stories of hardship, and stories of courage and sacrifice. So, as you step off this stage today, know that you are ready, and we are ready for you. And I look forward to seeing and hearing about all the ways that you shape the world for the better.

I wish you fair winds and following seas, and nothing but the best as you pursue your next adventure.

So thank you and congratulations to the Class of 2023.