Commencement Address by the Vice President at the United States Naval Academy
United States Naval Academy
10:20 A.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't want to give the wrong speech here. (Laughter.) You already heard one, you don't need two.
Folks, it’s an honor to be here. Governor McAuliffe, special congratulations to you, old buddy. Your son Jack, top 10 percent, head of an honors committee, captain of the Rugby team. Terry, are you sure he’s your son? (Laughter.) I don't know, man. This is a talented young man. I can understand him being Dorothy’s son, but I don't know. Congratulations to you, to the McAuliffes.
Secretary Mabus, Admiral Greenert -- the Admiral is always nice to me in spite of the fact that I live in his house. The Vice President’s home is referred to as NAVOBS. It’s 78 beautiful acres sitting on the highest point of Washington. It used to be the CNO’s home. The Navy still runs it. I live there, and he still speaks to me. And I appreciate it. (Laughter.) I live on Navy property, I am Navy property.
General Dunford, congratulations. And Vice Admiral Carter, Captain Byrne, faculty, staff, family, friends, and midshipmen, most of all -- the Class of 2015.
Before I begin I’d like to again mention and honor Midshipman Justin Zemser, Class of ‘17. Justin was a top student, a gifted athlete -- remembered as a young man of quiet strength and a man of his word. He would have made a great Navy SEAL. And he will be missed. My heart goes out to his family. No child should predecease a parent.
Class of 2015, you’re among the most promising -- you were among the most promising high school students on the planet. No one would have blamed you for choosing an easier path. But you chose service. You chose honor. You chose to join the real 1 percent that protects the 99 percent of the rest of us here in America. (Applause.)
And we owe you. We're proud of you.
Today, you graduate from one of the most venerated military and academic institutions on the entire Earth. In the time since you reported for I-Day four years ago, you’ve earned your place. Enough zero-five-thirty PTs will do that to you.
On the one hand, you’ve been subjected to unflattering haircuts. On the other hand, though, you get to wear dress whites. And you all look terrific.
You’ve spent your summer abroad on real ships rather than internships. (Laughter.) And the specter of living in your parents’ basements after this graduation day is not likely to be your greatest concern. (Laughter and applause.)
And that’s true across the board even for you history and English majors like me. (Laughter.) I see all the English majors nodding. (Laughter.)
And as a point of personal privilege, I’d like to recognize one graduate today, Sarah Behm. The reason I do, I appointed her father to the academy. He was the Class of ’78. Dad, you done real well with this girl. Congratulations to you. (Applause.)
And I know all of you parents are just bursting with pride. Class of 2015, you've been an outstanding class, surpassing even the academy’s high standards. You excelled on the field -- 13 straight wins against Army football. (Applause.) Not bad. Not bad, except you’re the father of an Army major, Iraqi War veteran with a Bronze Star, who doesn't like it at all. It’s hard. We always go to the Army-Navy game, and I tell you what, it’s a devastating thing to sit next to my son. But congratulations. (Laughter.) It makes it very uncomfortable at home, though. (Laughter.)
You’ve excelled as a community and in the community. You mobilized midshipmen to perform over 26,000 hours of community service. You've registered over 2,000 new bone marrow donors, collected and donated over 60,000 pounds of food for those in need.
And you excelled in the classroom. You didn't just win the Annual Cyber-Defense Exercise, you became the first graduating class at any school in the United States of America to ever have had every student complete the comprehensive cyber-security curriculum. (Applause.)
You know, back in 1845, the Secretary of the Navy’s name was Bancroft, and he chose this site for its seclusion -- its seclusion from temptation and distractions of the big cities. I wonder what the hell/heck he would have done had he known about McGarvey’s and O’Briens and just Armadillo’s. (Laughter.) I doubt whether he would have picked this place.
And a few of you, some as a consequence of those temptations, have engaged in minor infractions. (Laughter.) So in the spirit of a long-standing tradition, I hereby absolve all midshipmen presently on restriction for minor conduct offenses. (Applause.)
And I say to all the parents, you notice a few of them didn't cheer initially. They're afraid they’d be identified as those on restriction. (Laughter.) But I say to all those on restriction, or had been on restriction till a moment ago, don't worry, John McCain and I can tell you, it’s never gotten in the way of real talent. (Laughter.) You think I’m kidding, don't you? (Laughter.) I went to the University of Delaware. It wasn’t called restriction; it was called social probation. Oh, God forgive me for what I’ve done. Anyway. (Laughter.)
In 15 minutes, you’re about to become part of this long continuum of Naval and Marine officers who have graduated from this incredible institution, a legacy that goes back 170 years. And as someone who did not graduate from here, but has been in the midst of all of you for my entire professional career, I can tell you, you will join now a fraternity, a sorority that binds you together like nothing I have ever seen in my life -- and I mean this.
As my military aide, Lieutenant Commander Brett Elko, and thousands of others of men and women who have graduated from the academy will tell you, this legacy will stay with you whether you're in or out of uniform.
You’ll find Annapolis graduates everywhere in the world and know -- you will just know that they will always have your back, whether or not they’ve ever met you before. It is an incredible thing to see.
And I would now like to ask all those veterans with us today, including the 37 in the Class of 2015, please stand up and be recognized. Please stand. (Applause.) We owe you every breath of our liberty to the sacrifices you have made. This place has given you, the graduates of 2015, bonds that will last your entire lifetime. And you've earned it.
There are no other bonds except one deeper. And those are the bonds with those who came here today to see you. Your moms, your dads, your grandparents, brothers and sisters -- they're the ones responsible for your character. You owe them and America owes them. So, Graduating Class of 2015, stand up and show your appreciation for your parents. (Applause.)
Usually when I address a graduating class, I say to the parents, congratulations. You’re about to get a pay raise. No more tuition. But you settled that four years ago. (Laughter.)
You know, Graduating Class, this path you’ve chosen is not for everyone. It’s not an easy ride. It will require much, but it will reward much. As you know, the true measure of an officer is not only how you sail on calm waters, but how you navigate the storm. And we, your fellow Americans, expect a great deal from you -- not just your physical courage, but your moral courage as well, which at times can be even harder to muster.
You will be measured by this account as well. And as officers in the United States military, you must demand that every one of your fellow sailors and Marines is afforded the dignity and respect that they deserve, no matter race, gender, faith, or sexual orientation.
As leaders in the United States Navy, we count on you to refuse to tolerate sexual harassment or sexual assault in any form, under any circumstances. It’s a matter of honor that you prevent that. (Applause.)
And as we look to the future, we look to you to be the forward-deployed face of America, projecting power in every corner of the world. Because as President Theodore Roosevelt declared in an address to Congress, “A good Navy is not a provocation to war; it’s the surest guarantee of peace.” A good Navy is the surest guarantee of peace. The United States is in the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Arctic. We are an Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic power, as well as a nation.
The seas cover seven-tenths of the globe. Six-tenths of our borders are seacoast. Nine out of ten people on the planet live on the coasts. This maritime domain, the oceans you will roam, will be as important as ever to our national strength and security in the 21st century. And let me tell you why.
First, the oceans continue to be an arena of potential conflict. There’s nothing new about events on the seas driving conflict. But what is new? As the great powers have stepped back from the brink of mutual assured destruction, there are new fault lines. These new fault lines will continue to divide the great powers, and they reside in the straits, in the sea lanes that you will come to know so well. Tensions run high. As I speak, they run high. But you will be there to keep the peace.
U.S. foreign policy is rebalancing toward the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region. But we can’t succeed if you don’t show up. That’s why 60 percent of the United States Naval forces will be stationed in the Asia Pacific by 2020 -- P-8s, Zumwalt-class destroyers, littoral combat ships, forward-deployed forces, Marines in Darwin -- all and many more are headed to the Pacific, and so are many of you. And it matters -- because Pacific peace and prosperity, to a great extent, has depended on and will continue to depend on U.S. Naval power, just as it has for the past 60 years.
President Xi of China, when I was meeting with him, asked me why do I continue to say America is a Pacific power? And I said because we are. (Laughter.) And, Mr. President, you owe your stability over the last 30 years to the United States Navy and military. And he acknowledged it. You are a force for peace and security. We’ve used your power to reinforce and update the international rules and cooperation that benefit all nations to manage the emerging challenges of the century ahead before they devolve into conflict.
In the disputed waters of the South China Sea, the United States does not privilege the claims of one nation over another. But we do –- unapologetically –- stand up for the equitable and peaceful resolution of disputes and for the freedom of navigation.
And today, these principles are being tested by Chinese activities in the South China Sea. They’re building airstrips --the placing of oil rigs, the imposition of unilateral bans on fishing in disputed territories, the declaration of air-defense zones, the reclamation of land, which other countries are doing, but not nearly on the massive scale the Chinese are doing.
We are going to look to you to uphold these principles wherever they are challenged, to strengthen our growing security partnerships, and to make good on our unshakable commitment to the mutual defense of our allies.
You will serve in ships and on squadrons deployed everywhere from these very Pacific sea lanes to the Strait of Hormuz,
where Iranian fast-boats threaten a vital marine chokepoint -- maritime chokepoint.
In the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea, you will play a major role in protecting a Europe whole, free and at peace at a time when Russian aggression threatens Europe’s frontier. Around the world, your presence will be felt, convincing potential adversaries that the cost of aggression against us or our allies would be devastating.
We will look to you to guarantee our strategic nuclear deterrence serving in Navy ballistic missile submarines, the most secure and survivable element of our nuclear triad. From the offensive firepower of the Marine Expeditionary Force to our Carrier strike forces to our multi-nation ballistic missile defense capable ships [sic], woe betide the foe who decides to challenge the United States of America or our Navy. (Applause.)
And the truth that you know as well as I do is it’s not only are you on the seas. I have been in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq over 27 times. I’ve seen you. I’ve seen young Navy captains in FOBs high up in the Kunar Valley. I’ve watched Marines throw themselves in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thirty-five thousand of you Marines, 5,000 sailors at this moment are deployed ashore, in conflict areas. You are everywhere.
There’s a second reason why you remain so vital to us. As if what I’ve just said were not enough, we also look to you to keep the global economy afloat, because the oceans are the vital avenue of commerce, and we depend on the United States Navy to protect the sea lanes.
People sometimes think in this day and age of global commerce, think in terms of the Internet and air travel. But you know the reality. At this moment, 80 percent of all the commerce in the world is on the back of a container ship. That remains the backbone of world commerce -- 90 percent of it. And that's only going to increase.
As you all know too well, the world’s sea lanes do not police themselves. You, United States Navy, police them -- protecting against piracy and coercion. And you do it not just for our own ships, but for all who seek to freely navigate the seas.
And in the century ahead, we will look to the oceans you roam -- not just as an arena for potential conflict, not just as avenues of commerce, but as arenas of cooperation to deal with the challenges no other country in the world can solve alone, and few can solve without us. We'll rely on you, the United States Navy, to lead in solving these emerging problems.
When millions of lives were ravaged by nature, as we saw after the devastating typhoon in the Philippines, the United States Navy filled the void, saving countless lives. Our presence -- your presence -- matters.
As President Obama discussed at the Coast Guard Academy graduation a couple days ago, a changing climate means “more extreme storms will mean more humanitarian missions to deliver lifesaving help. Our forces will have to be ready.” You remain indispensable.
America’s command of the oceans is the measure and the symbol of our diplomatic and military primacy in the world. As George Washington remarked during the Revolutionary War, "It follows then as certain as that night succeeds day that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive. And with it, everything honorable and glorious." That hasn’t changed one single bit.
So I say to you all, we continue to count on you to protect the world’s security on the high seas, to project the presence required to sustain the United States as a global superpower -- to be where it matters, when it matters most.
We cannot promise you fame or money. We cannot promise you a calm or quiet passage. But I can promise you, without and beyond the exception of your mother, father, husband and wife -- there will be no titles you will more proudly bear than being an officer in the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps. (Applause.)
In a different context, in a different century, John Kennedy said something that applies today, as well. He said, “Any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think he can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction -- ‘I served in the United States Navy.’” (Applause.)
In the weeks, months and years to come, you’ll be asked to bear burdens and make sacrifices you will never have dreamed of and you wondered whether you would be capable of. When those moments arise -- and they will -- remember all you’ve learned, all you’ve felt, all you’ve breathed here at the Naval Academy. And you will rise to the moment. And know one thing for sure -- you are not alone. You will never, ever be alone. You will be surrounded by a family that raised you and a family that made you an officer in the finest military in the history of the world, without exception.
So, congratulations, Class of 2015. May God bless and protect the brigades of the Navy and the Marine Corps. And may you have fair winds and following seas. And may God protect all our troops in harm’s way. God bless America.
10:46 A.M. EDT