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President Joe Biden delivers commencement address at Coast Guard Academy in New London

New London — The U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduated 240 ensigns at Cadet Memorial Field on Wednesday, in a commencement ceremony that included an address from President Joe Biden and marked more of a return to normalcy after last year's ceremony went virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Graduates were allowed only a limited number of guests each, but families were able to sit maskless in the bleachers on the sunny, 79-degree day. The past four years have been a long journey for the ensigns, culminating in a day both exciting and emotional.

Of the graduates, 34% are women and 34% are minority students, with seven students coming from three other countries: Georgia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. In his speech, Biden said we "need to see more women at the highest levels of command." Twelve students were high school valedictorians, and 91% of graduates have earned a varsity letter.

The president flew into Quonset Point Air National Guard Station in North Kingstown, R.I., before taking Marine One to the Coast Guard Academy, landing at 10:30 a.m. and walking onto the stage about 40 minutes later, wearing his signature aviator sunglasses.

Biden opened his roughly 25-minute speech by mentioning various politicians in attendance, including Gov. Ned Lamont, whom he said has "been a good friend for a long time," as well as Coast Guard leaders.

The president recalled when he addressed the academy as vice president in 2013, when he told cadets, "This is not your father's Coast Guard." But he joked Wednesday to one of the graduates, "First-class Eric Schultz, this IS your father's Coast Guard," considering his father is U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl L. Schultz.

Biden said his 2013 comments were about how the Coast Guard was "adapting so rapidly to changing conditions." His remarks on Wednesday doubled down on that statement.

"The demands and the challenges that you're going to face in your career are going to look very different than those who walked these halls before you," Biden said. "The world is changing. We are at a significant inflection point in world history."

Before launching into foreign policy, Biden praised graduates and the academy for how they've maintained operations throughout the pandemic.

"You found ways to keep many of the academy's traditions alive and maybe even formed a few new ones," he said. When listing some of these traditions, Biden referenced Slice Pizza Bar in New London, a favorite hangout for cadets.

"You passed through 100th week, and maybe spent a little too much time at The Slice," Biden said to loud cheers. "You can clap. Come on, man, you're moving on. Show a little courage."

Biden also joked that he was addressing a "really dull class" when a barb directed at the Navy didn't land many laughs.

He said his administration is "committed to taking on the scourge of sexual harassment and assault in the military," and referenced discussions on racial equity at the academy in the wake of George Floyd's murder. Biden eventually came to foreign policy issues and elaborated on what graduates will be facing, including pandemic and natural disaster response efforts, as well as matters of national security, such as trade with international partners.

"With the pace of climate change accelerating, we're seeing more frequent and more intense storms and calls for you to respond," Biden said. "Last year was the most active hurricane season on record ... And the Coast Guard was always there to respond, even at the height of the pandemic."

He argued the Coast Guard must be active in ensuring the “unimpeded flow of global commerce” and said he’ll continue to support the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to ensure “the waters of our planet are not exploited by any one nation but are preserved for the benefit of all.”

To conclude, Biden said he's optimistic about the new ensigns and their generation, saying they are "the most progressive, most educated, least prejudiced, most open generation in American history."

Biden is the 10th presidential keynote speaker at the school.

In true military form, cadets began their procession to “Pomp and Circumstance” at 11 a.m. on the dot, the field silent in the moments before. Prior to the ceremony starting, the U.S. Coast Guard Band played and videos streamed.

In the bleachers, Wendy Everson was there from Colorado Springs to support her daughter, Rachel Everson. She was sitting with Rachel's aunt, sister and boyfriend. Rachel Everson's sister, Hannah Everson, graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2016, when former President Barack Obama spoke — and she thinks it's pretty cool both sisters got a presidential speaker.

Rachel Everson, an electrical engineering major, is set to become a deck watch officer on the cutter Diligence in Pensacola, Fla.

Southeastern Connecticut graduates among Class of 2021

New London's Tommy Thompson was in the bleachers Wednesday supporting his son, Trent Robledo-Thompson, a 2017 graduate of New London High School.

"It's been an incredible experience," he said before the ceremony began. "He has grown so much, and like anything, it takes a village, and he's had a great support system through the academy and the community."

Thompson said whenever his son received time off, known as "liberty," he would bring other cadets with him, "and we were able to host at our home lots of cadets through the years." He said it was like a home away from home for cadets who aren't from nearby, and a chance for them to compress and unwind.

As proud families flooded the field to take pictures with their graduates after the ceremony ended, Robledo-Thompson took pictures with fellow New London High School graduates Nate Skrabacz and Maylis Yepez Burac.

Skrabacz said his father served in the Navy, and wanting to support the military while living in New London, the family sponsored cadets when Skrabacz was a kid. He has been to a lot of Coast Guard Academy graduations, and Wednesday it was time for his own.

Skrabacz said his most memorable moments at the academy were on the rowing team. He is off to Alameda, Calif., to be a deck watch officer on the cutter Waesche.

Other local graduates reflected on their experience the day before, as first-class cadets gathered at Washington Parade Plaza for the Class of 2021's regimental review.

Marine Science Magnet High School graduate Abby Casey, who majored in Operations Research and Computer Analysis at the Coast Guard Academy, said she was drawn to the academy by its focus on humanities and her love of being on the water.

She spent last summer on the barque Eagle and said it was interesting adapting the training program to COVID-19; the 295-foot training ship didn't leave New London because of the pandemic. After graduating, she is going to be a deck watch officer on a buoy tender.

Yepez Burac reflected back four years ago: "When I first came in, I had done the AIM program," she said, referring to a one-week immersive summer program, "so I thought I had a feel for what Swab Summer would be like, and day one rocked my world."

But she stuck through the ups and downs, and was pushed in ways she didn't know she'd be pushed, such as interacting with smaller communities in Barbados during her third-class summer.

"This place kind of expedites growth," Yepez said. The engineering major will next be doing law enforcement missions on the cutter Diligence.

Her roommate in Pensacola will be fellow graduate Lauren Murrill, a government major from Arizona. Most ensigns go to cutters, but Murrill is among the less than 10% going to flight school, which she is doing after spending the summer working in admissions at the Coast Guard Academy.

"I love the idea of being able to pick a human life up and save them," Murrill said of rescue missions.

Murrill got her first taste of aviation at the academy as a fourth-class cadet, doing a pilot shadow program for a weekend at Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod. But her father, William Murrill, was in the Air National Guard, and so she was exposed to a lot of air shows growing up.

Her mother, Jackie Murrill, said that family members back home were "super excited" for the graduation Wednesday and going to be tuning in from afar.

When news of Biden's visit was announced, academy Superintendent Rear Adm. William Kelly said, "It will be a memorable event for our community, as well as a great opportunity to showcase the Academy and the city of New London on a national stage."

On Wednesday, he told the graduates, "You have navigated the 200-week journey, you have led the corps of cadets through a global pandemic, and you have sprinted through the tape and arrived here today at the starting line for what I'm sure will be an amazing journey."

The student speaker was Sean Seyller, who during the pandemic co-created a remote tutoring program to help students from local elementary schools, and will be going to Washington, D.C., and reporting to Coast Guard Cyber Command.

Along with the traditional demands of the Coast Guard Academy, Seyller said cadets have dealt with "mental health, social justice upheaval and a global pandemic simultaneously," and that "our finest hours occurred when there was no playbook."

"There's nothing we would rather be known for than the ability to be comfortable with being uncomfortable," he said.

s.spinella@theday.com

e.moser@theday.com

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