Pence to graduating cadets: Coast Guard is entering historic period of investment
New London — Vice President Mike Pence told the Coast Guard Academy's Class of 2018 on Wednesday that the graduates are entering the Coast Guard at a time of "historic investment" in the military.
"As you accept the responsibility to lead Coast Guard men and women, I promise you this commander in chief will always have your back," Pence said in his address.
The $1.3 billion federal spending package signed into law by President Donald Trump a few months ago included $700 billion for the military. More than $12 billion was allotted for the Coast Guard, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, and members of the service received the largest pay raise for Coast Guardsmen in nearly 10 years, according to Pence.
The $12 billion will go toward purchasing the first of 25 new offshore patrol cutters, two national-security cutters and six fast-response cutters, "which are coming off the assembly line as we speak to support our border security efforts and our fight against terrorism across the world," Pence said.
"We are going to give the best fighting force in the world the best equipment they've ever had," he added.
Eight Connecticut natives were among the 209 Coast Guard graduates.
One is 2014 Fitch High School graduate Jacklyn Kokomoor, who said she became interested in joining the service in part because some of her role models from the high school swim team went to the Air Force Academy and Naval Academy. She will soon be the officer in charge of the damage control division on the Coast Guard cutter Waesche, the same cutter she was on last summer.
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"It was huge for me, because I'm going in as an engineering officer rather than a deck officer, so last summer was really integral in me deciding to choose that path," she said.
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The six international students in the class will return to their home countries to serve.
More than 3,000 people attended the ceremony, which took place on Cadet Memorial Field under a practically cloudless sky, to watch as the cadets became ensigns.
Rear Adm. James Rendon, superintendent at the academy, told the Class of 2018, "the mission of this great class who will go on to become worthy leaders in the world's best Coast Guard has just begun."
Adm. Paul Zukunft, who retires as head of the Coast Guard on June 1, noted some of the service's recent accomplishments such as seizing more drugs last year than all of U.S. law enforcement combined, the value of which exceeds the Coast Guard's annual budget, he said, and saving more than 12,000 lives during hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Zukunft will be succeeded by Vice Adm. Karl L. Schultz, who is commander of Coast Guard Atlantic Area.
During his 30-minute address, Pence also brought up the Coast Guard's rescue and response efforts following the hurricanes, which happened in quick succession and were three of the strongest on record. More than 3,000 Coast Guardsmen responded, from as far away as Hawaii, Alaska and Indiana, he said, singling out the efforts of some.
"They're emblematic of the men and women that you'll be leading, you'll be serving alongside in the days ahead," Pence said. "Remember, to lead heroes, you must be a hero. To lead them, you must be worthy of them. You must be men and women of integrity, leaders of character."
Service runs in the family
For many graduates — like Mariah Klenke of Pittsburg, Kan., — serving in the armed forces runs in their blood.
Klenke's father and one of her uncles were in the Army. Another uncle was in the Army and Marines and another is an Air Force colonel. Three of her four grandparents served in World War II. And her sister, Navy Lt. Sarah Klenke, presented her with her commission.
Klenke's family said she received a Coast Guard Achievement Medal for giving the Heimlich maneuver and saving the life of a man she encountered while on duty last summer in Astoria, Ore.
Retired naval officer Ron Melampy said his grandson Michael Melampy came to the Coast Guard Academy partly to play tennis but more so he could serve his country. He said one of his grandson's great experiences was serving on the Eagle, the Coast Guard training ship, for two summers.
Ron Melampy said of the academy, "I think it teaches them self-discipline, and first of all it's a great education, one of the finest educations the service academies provide in the country, and they're taught leadership."
For many family members, one word that describes the experience is "camaraderie."
Vice president's visit draws protesters
Pence's visit to the Coast Guard Academy graduation ceremony drew a small crowd of activists to New London.
It was a far cry from the hundreds who had gathered during Trump's visit last year, but the 30 people who did arrive carried signs and a message of unity that many said was at odds with the policies of the current administration.
"I came out because I'm taking a stand for peace and for words that promote peace and unity," said Carmen Wooster of Hartford. "This administration does not evoke those kinds of words. The word peace needs to be reintroduced into our diplomacy."
Wooster, carrying a sign that read "Honk for the Dreamers," had traveled to New London with other members of the Connecticut Peace and Solidarity Coalition.
Many of those gathered recalled that Pence, while the governor of Indiana in 2015, refused a Syrian refugee family entry into his state. A day before their arrival, Pence announced suspension of resettlement activities until he was assured that proper security measures were in place at the federal level.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy stepped in to welcome the family to Connecticut.
Day Staff Writer Greg Smith contributed to this report.