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New London — Vice President Joe Biden told more than 200 new Coast Guard officers Wednesday they are now an integral, indispensable part of the most capable armed forces in history.
"Four years ago, you were among the most promising high school graduates anywhere in America," Biden said to the Class of 2013 at the Coast Guard Academy commencement ceremony. "Your future was limited only by your imaginations. And no one would have blamed you for choosing an easier road, one with greater physical security and more material gain. But that is not what you are made of."
Now, as officers, they will confront challenges unimaginable years ago, Biden said. Stateless actors are trying to smuggle weapons into American ports, piracy and human trafficking have reached record levels, deep-sea drilling for oil threatens the nation's shorelines and new ice-free passages are opening in the Arctic, he added.
Twice in the 25-minute speech at the academy's 132nd commencement exercises, Biden told the class, "This is not your father's Coast Guard."
The 227 graduates assembled on Cadet Memorial Field on an overcast morning. The group included 66 women, the most in memory, as well as four international students.
Joseph Sullivan-Springhetti, the 2013 distinguished graduate, spoke about meeting a high school student in his hometown of Beaverton, Ore., who believed high achievers are rewarded with a free education at the academy but with a catch: They have to serve five years in the Coast Guard.
"The academy is a wonderful, beautiful place, but it is not what I would call a reward," Sullivan-Springhetti said, pointing out that the past four years included a lot of exams, marching tours, stress, and late nights and early mornings. "It's not the academy that is the reward and the Coast Guard the obligation. It's the opposite."
Sullivan-Springhetti said he was humbled to stand with his classmates, just a few speeches away from being officers.
"Our prospects are blinding, our possibilities are boundless," he said. "What makes us different isn't just that we have potential. … What makes us different is we have promised our potential, not to ourselves, not to a corporation or to a bottom line, but to our country, to humanity.
"Our work will matter," he concluded. "This is our reward."
Sullivan-Springhetti received a standing ovation. He was so well-spoken, Biden quipped in his speech, that the new ensign may one day be the next commander-in-chief.
"I'm just glad you're so damn young you can't take my job yet," Biden said, to laughter.
Biden joked several times in his speech, at one point telling the graduates that they made their "presence known at Hanafin's" and teasing the quarterback, Jon Resch, for leading on the football field but "not leading in hours in the library."
"Johnny boy, I understand that, I played, too," he said.
On a serious note, Biden told the graduates he is "absolutely confident" in their abilities to meet the new and growing challenges the Coast Guard is facing.
"The nation asks a great deal of you because we know you're capable of a great deal," he said.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio were among the dignitaries on the dais.
Graduation day was of course all about the graduates, who sat on white folding chairs in their dress white uniforms on the football field. But it was also a momentous day for the thousands of family members and friends who sat in the bleachers, snapping pictures. Biden asked the students to applaud their supporters, as did Sullivan-Springhetti.
Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the Coast Guard commandant, welcomed the new ensigns to the service. Rather than administering the oath of office himself, he let Rear Adm. Kevin Cook, the 8th District commander, do it. Cook's daughter, Megan, graduated in the class.
The new ensigns walked across the stage to accept their diplomas from Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz and their commissions either from Biden or from a relative in military service. At the end of the 2½-hour ceremony, the graduates tossed their cadet hats and shoulder boards high into the air. Some of the children in the bleachers ran through the rows of graduates, scooping up hats as they hit the ground.
Later, Papp characterized the ceremony as uplifting and said Biden's speech touched on all the right points.
"He recognizes the Coast Guard has a much broader job than the other services, which tend to be focused on war-fighting, and rightfully so," he said. "He told them they were joining the best Coast Guard in the history of the world, which I would have to agree with, and gave them an inspirational message as they start out on their careers."
The ensigns took photos on the field with their families. Jessica Ward of Littleton, Colo., the valedictorian, said she was "really, really pumped."
"I can't believe it's real," she said. "I know I'll be sad. I'll miss the people. But right now it's just exciting to have completed it."
Nearby, Justin Dougherty celebrated with his immediate and extended family — all 20 of them — most of whom had flown in from Indialantic, Fla.
"Justin got accepted to flight school,'' said his mother, Gwen. "We are so excited. We are so proud of him. Can you tell?''
In addition to his mother and his father, Ward, and his sister, Michelle, an assortment of aunts and uncles and cousins attended. The family gathered for a group picture and had to huddle together to fit in the frame.
"He has always had a lot of family support,'' Gwen Dougherty said.
The class also included some local graduates: Jonathan Paquette of Groton, Ryan Vandehei of Ivoryton, Catherine Schmitz of Stonington, Daniel Spangler of Waterford, and Ellen Kintz of Westerly.
Paquette said he is honored to be a member of the Coast Guard.
"It's amazing. It's kind of surprising to be here. A lot of things could have stopped it," he said, adding that some of his friends didn't make it through the rigorous program.
Of the cadets who reported in to the academy in 2009, 83 percent graduated. Paquette is assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter Dependable in Cape May, N.J.
Spangler, a 2008 graduate of Waterford High School, spent a year at the New Mexico Military Institute preparing for the academy. Now, having earned a bachelor of science degree in management, Spangler said he's ready to surf.
Spangler, who first surfed during a visit to Hawaii last year, is assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell in San Diego.
"There have just been a lot of ups and downs," Spangler said of the past five years. "But you have to ride it out, like a wave."
Staff writer Kathleen Edgecomb contributed to this report.
Alaina Accumanno, Brian Acuna, Dante Adams, David Adams, Douglas Anna, Keith Arnold, Ian Ashner, Tyler Babkiewich, William Baker, Charles Barrett, Holli Bastinck, Parker Bateson, Michael Beaupre, Riley Beecher, Brandon Belveal, Jacob Bibb, Carolyn Bigos, Tyler Bittner, Madeline Blackburn, Sarah Blatt, Joseph Blinsky, Lauren Bloch, Andrew Bogdan, Mark Bonner, Jacob Boross, Conrad Boucher, Berit Boyle, Andrew Bratman, Conor Breckenridge, Stephanie Bugyis, Cameron Carroll, Josie Cartaya, Harrison Carter, Christine Case, Gina Caylor, Rachel Christensen, Thomas Chronert, Christopher Clifton, Thomas Cogley, Karli Collins, Andrew Cook, Megan Cook, Michael Cooper, Nicole Corbett, Rachel Cuthrell, Jedidiah Daleiden, Steven Danseglio, Bradley Davis, James Diddell, Clare Dorsey, Justin Dougherty, Summer Dupler, Madeline Ede, Elisa Encinias y Garcia, David Endean, Brandi Engle, Austin English, Carmine Faul, Ann Fecskovics, Alexandria Fell, James Fennessey, Caitlin Force, Edwin Forteza, Kelsey Freeman, Joshua Freivald, Prescott Fuller, Edward Gailor, Nolan Gallagher, Eric Gerken, Cathleen Giguere, John Giovanni, Maurice Goin, William Gonzalez, Daniel Graf, Frederick Green, Corey Green, Collin Gruin, Merrill Gutowski, Alex Hamel, Ryan Harrigan, Curtis Hayes, Benjamin Hinchman, Breanna Hite, Freddy Hofschneider, Sarah Hohenberger, Natasha Hope, Adam Horstick, Andrew Horvath, Ethan Huck, Jared Ische, Steele Johnson, Daniel Jones, Terri Jozsa, Kathleen Kane, Julia Kane, Elizabeth Kenis, Gregory Kennerley, David Kent, Joseph Kidwell, Cameron King, Ellen Kintz, David Kline, Vincent Knaeble, Kevin Knaup, James Knudsen, Artem Konotopskiy, Kimberly Kopcak, Victoria Lacefield-Rodriguez, Brent Lane, Patrick Leavitt, Aaron Lee, Conor Lee, Brennan Lee, Charles Leffler, Gabrielle Lemly, Robert Litts, Michael Lopez, James Lord, Stephen Lozier, Matthew Lynne, John Mack, Justin Maio, John Manganiello, Gregory Marshall, Matthew Martin, Felipe Martinez, Keriann Mason, Michael Massaro, Karen Matic, Blake Maurer, Colleen McCue, Patrick Meggers, Stephanie Mewes, Ryan Miklosovich, Geddy Miller, Lydia Monks, Emily Morrow, Richard Nagel, Barton Nanney, Jacob Naum, Justin Nease, Julianna Neatrour, Bradley Nelson, Keith Nicholson, Stephen Nolan, Patrick O'Donnell, Erik Oredson, Michael Packer, Jonathan Paquette, Casey Paris, Richard Francis Parocha, Colleen Patton, Daniel Pereira, Norberto Perez, Derek Petty, Michael Piantedosi, Alma Pinelo, Graham Pitcairn, Nicholas Poehler, Geoffrey Pringle, Enrique Quinones, Rachel Rand, Michael Rauch, Andrew Ray, Hichem Rehouma, Christopher Reimer, Jonathon Resch, Eric Ressel, Tyler Richardson, Derrick Rockey, Lydia Roets, Kathleen Romas, Andrew Russo, Rachel Rychtanek, Jonathan Salinas, Cori Sanchez, Ian Sankey, Jonathan Sapundjieff, Nerijus Sarkauskas, Stacia Sarwinski, Carl Schemel, Catherine Schmitz, John Schulz, Colin Schuster, Edward Sella, Luka Serdar, Maksims Sivohins, Jeb Slick, Kevin Smit, Joseph Smith, Leigh Sowers, Daniel Spangler, Zachary Speck, Ronald Stephens, Connor Stevens, Kellen Stock, Timothy Storbeck, Joseph Sullivan-Springhetti, Joshua Surgeon, Collin Sykes, Erin Talbot, Brandon Taylor, Vanessa Taylor, George Thomas, Karl Thurston, Nathaniel Toll, Caroline Truesdell, Nathan Turner, Jessica Van Horn, Ryan Vandehei, Tyler Vieira, Joshua Villafane, Caleb Wadsworth, Catherine Walker, Max Walker, Rita Walter, Jessica Ward, Alexa Ward, Thomas Warren, Kathryn Weber, Joel Weise, Benjamin Williamsz, Kevin Wissner, Garrett Wright, Timothy Wyderko, Tahnee Zaccano, Ethan Zitzman.