Obama focuses on climate change at Coast Guard Academy commencement
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New London — Ensign Jonathan Jester, born in Homer, Alaska, wanted to get back to his home state, and in a few weeks he'll do just that.
He will report to the Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley, homeported in Kodiak, where he grew up. For Jester, one of 218 Coast Guard Academy cadets who graduated and were commissioned as ensigns Wednesday, the keynote address delivered by President Barack Obama really hit home.
"Climate change," the president told the Class of 2015, "will affect everything that you do in your careers."
Lasting about 30 minutes, the president's keynote address was mostly a policy talk about the national security implications of climate change and the Coast Guard's role in combatting that global threat.
Jester's family recently moved from Kodiak to Nome, just under the Arctic Circle.
"The changes that are going on with the climate (are) having an effect on what's going on up there not only with the Coast Guard but the native people and the people who have been there forever," Jester, a marine and environmental sciences major, said after the ceremony.
The president emphasized that this is a threat faced not only by the U.S. but by the rest of the world.
"No nation is immune," he said. "So I'm here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security. And make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country."
More than 4,000 people attended Wednesday's commencement at the academy, including active duty military members, military veterans, families and friends of the graduating cadets, local schoolchildren and a gaggle of national and local media members.
"Today is all about the parents, families and their cadets," said Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz, superintendent of the academy, adding that none of the cadets "got where they are today by themselves, and I thank all of you in the audience, the parents, friends and families who have done so much to motivate and sustain our cadets these past four years."
The first day at the academy for the Class of 2015 was June 27, 2011. Ensign Justin Sherman, the class distinguished graduate and student speaker, said the cadets learned traditions passed down through generations like the alma mater.
"There was dissonance that first night as we sang the alma mater, for we had yet to find our harmony with one another, but it came quickly in the seven weeks and months that followed," Sherman said.
The new ensigns majored in civil engineering, management, naval architecture and marine engineering and other disciplines. The class, which includes 33 percent minorities and 32 percent women, is the most diverse in the academy's history.
Ensign Mary Hazen is one of those women. Hazen is the academy's first female National Collegiate Boxing Champion. After the graduation, Hazen explained that boxing was a way to "get the day's stress out."
Commander Merle Smith (ret.), the first African-American to graduate from the academy, and Dr. Olivia Hooker, the first African-American woman to join the Coast Guard, were both present for the 134th commencement exercises.
Smith, who lives in the area, had Ensign Omar Duke-Tinson over to his house during Duke-Tinson's freshman year. The two talked about "good ol' seamanship," the academy's football team and Smith's time at the academy, Duke-Tinson said.
"It's a pleasure and a privilege to graduate and serve," he said after the ceremony.
A notable absence marked this year's ceremony. In March, Cadet First Class Soso Makaridze was killed in a car crash just nine weeks before graduation. Cadet Third Class Bersarion "Beso" Gorjoladze was also killed in the crash.
"Soso will always be a part of the academy and our class," fellow Georgian George Talakhadze said afterward. He referred to Makaridze and Gorjoladze as his brothers and said they would also always be a part of the history of the Georgian Army and Georgian history, in general.
Talakadze and the four other international cadets in the graduating class will serve in the armed forces of their home countries of Antigua, Georgia, the Philippines and Tunisia.
The academy presented the ambassador of Georgia, H.E. Archil Gegeshidze, with Makaridze's diploma, a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering. "He earned it," Stosz said in presenting Makaridze's diploma.
Everyone in the audience stood and clapped.
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The sun shone brightly on families and friends in the bleachers of Cadet Memorial Field. The U.S. Coast Guard Band played patriotic tunes as a warm breeze rolled off the nearby Thames River.
Cadet parents Patti and Larry Smith and Joe and Katherine Kelly met because of their sons.
From New Hampshire and Nebraska, respectively, graduates Kelcey Smith and Joseph Henry Kelly forged a friendship not only through their time in the Academy, but also as sprinters on its men’s track and field team.
"We're from Omaha," Joe Kelly said. "My son never saw the ocean until he came here."
“We were just talking about the kids, how they keep wanting one more time all together,” said Patti Smith, referring to the class as a whole. “They just love each other. It’s a real brotherhood, and sisterhood, too, I’m sure.”
But as the four parents stood together at the graduation they realized they, too, had become friends. “Even parents get to know good people here,” Patti said.
"Sitting before you today are leaders of character," said Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Paul Zukunft. He too mentioned the impacts of climate change, citing the opening waterways in the Arctic.
"As ice gives way to open ocean in the Arctic, a whole new domain has opened up, and the Coast Guard cutter Healy will have a national security cutter operating in that region as well as we look at the human activity that is now flourishing in the Arctic region in ways that we couldn't even envision 10 years ago," Zukunft said.
Security around the academy grounds was tight Wednesday, with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies each playing a part in ensuring the safety of the president and guests. The added security measures contributed to delayed traffic in the area of the academy, both as Obama's motorcade arrived and as he left for the return trip to Groton/New London Airport, where Air Force One had landed.
Wednesday marked the second time Obama has come to New London to speak at the Coast Guard Academy commencement — he first visited in 2011 — but this time he made direct and specific references to the academy's host city.
During his State of the Union address in January, Obama mentioned New London when referring to the nation's five service academies. Not everybody got the reference, he said Wednesday.
"So let me do it again," the president said. "It is a great honor to be back in New London at the United States Coast Guard Academy to salute the newest ensigns of America's oldest continuous maritime service."
Discussing how the class had built "new equipment that uses less energy" and "designed new vessels with fewer harmful emissions," Obama singled out Stephen Horvath, selected as a Fulbright Scholar, who will research new technologies for renewable energies.
Horvath will travel to Finland in mid-August to study renewable energy technology, a subject he's been interested in for years.
"It's such a growing field, and there's so much undiscovered and that can still be applied and researched and whatnot," said Horvath, a mechanical engineering major from San Diego.
Though not directly mentioned by the president, Tevin Porter-Perry, a naval architecture and marine engineering major, was one of the graduates who worked on lowering harmful emissions. For his senior project, Porter-Perry designed a Coast Guard vessel that could operate in the Arctic and that meets all environmental regulations.
"It's been a long four years," he said, noting the presence of both struggles and successes throughout his time at the academy. But he said, he was "overjoyed" to graduate.
More than 4,500 students applied to be members of the Class of 2015; the academy offered 373 appointments. The 218 graduates represent 73 percent of the 297 who enrolled. The final number of graduates was updated Wednesday after earlier lists put the class at 223.
Following the graduation, Obama flew to White Plains, N.Y., to travel to a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Stamford.
Day Staff writers Lindsay Boyle and Colin A. Young contributed to this report.