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New London — Addressing more than 200 new Coast Guard officers, President Obama said today that the complex missions of the Coast Guard have never been more important.
Abroad, Obama said the nation needs the Coast Guard to partner with other nations and help them secure their ports, as well as protect the shipping lanes and combat piracy. At home, the Coast Guard needs to stop smugglers and prevent terrorists from slipping weapons into ports, he added.
Fifteen minutes into his commencement speech at the Coast Guard Academy, Obama briefly mentioned the recent raid he ordered to kill Osama bin Laden. While the terrorist leader is no longer a threat, Obama said, "the hard work of protecting our country, the hard work goes on."
"We will never waiver in defense of the country we love," he said. "None of the missions are easy and none are without risk."
The rest of 20-minute speech was more of a traditional commencement address, rather than a commentary on current events or an announcement of any new initiatives. In 2007, President Bush used his commencement address at the academy to make the case for the war in Iraq.
This year's ceremony was held inside Leamy Hall instead of outside due to rain.
Obama said he was counting on the new ensigns to go out, as many have before them, and meet these obligations. He said he was confident that "storms would pass" and "a brighter day beckons."
"And yes tomorrow will be brighter," he said.
Overflow crowds were watching the ceremony on screens throughout campus. More than 2,100 people watched on the third deck of Roland Hall, HS-1 Sara Demers said.
The ensigns, who will head to cutter's in places like Kodiak, Alaska or Sturgeon Bay, Wisc., had the highest class grade point average in the history of the academy, President Obama told the assembled friends and family during his commencement address.
The cadet with the highest grade point average, First Class Nathanael Crum, compared the student's journey through the Academy to climbing Mount Everest.
"Though we aren't bound by 9 millimeter line, the line that ties us together is more significant," Crum said. "It requires a team to achieve; it requires a team to climb mountains."
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. administered the oath of office to the 228 graduates and welcomed them into the Coast Guard. Serving in the Coast Guard, Papp said, is more than a job — it's a calling.
"There is no higher honor," Papp said. "I carry the same passion today for our mission, people and country that I did on the day I was commissioned. I only wish the same for you. So welcome aboard, welcome to the fleet, welcome to the officer corps. But more importantly, welcome to your new role as full-fledged members of our Coast Guard family, protecting those who use the seas, protecting the sea itself and protecting the nation."
The new ensigns walked across the stage, accepting their diploma from Rear Adm. J. Scott Burhoe, the academy superintendent, shaking hands with Papp and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano before accepting their commission from the president and posing for a picture.
Burhoe said the class of 2011 is now ready for "new challenges and opportunities." More than 3,300 students applied to be members; the academy offered 391 appointments. The 228 graduates represent more than 80 percent of those who reported to the campus four years ago.
The President received a standing ovation before taking the podium at today's event. He received a round of applause after referencing the recent demise of terrorist Osama bin Laden.
The ceremony was delayed after poor visibility made it difficult for President Obama to take a helicopter from Bradley Air National Guard Base in East Granby. Instead, the president was taken to the academy by motorcade and arrived around 11:40 a.m., delaying the beginning of the ceremony by almost an hour. Security on and surrounding campus was heavy in anticipation of the President's visit.
Before the speech, about 15 people gathered outside the U.S. Coast Guard Academy's main gate inh hopes of catching a glimpse of President Obama on his way to the ceremony.
Sokha Tout, of New London, was one of the first to arrive. At one point, he considered running back home to grab his camera, but he ultimately decided against it.
He contemplated which entrance and mode of transportation Obama would use to arrive for the graduation.
"I didn't vote for him, but I'd like to see the motorcade come by," Tout said smiling.
Michelle Allen also came walking up to join those gathered by the main gate on the corner of Williams Street and Mohegan Avenue. Allen said she helped register voters and raise awareness during Obama's first election campaign in 2008.
As she held an Obama-Biden election poster from 2008, she recalled meeting the President at the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence and marveling at how tall he was. On Wednesday, she learned of his arrival on the news, jumped in the shower and hurried over to the Coast Guard Academy.
"I've walked the streets for his campaign," Allen said. "I had to be here."
One woman outside the main gate held a sign that read, "Welcome President Obama."
She declined to offer her name, but she said she was "promoting civility."
Day staff writers Jeff Johnson and Sasha Goldstein contributed to this story.