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The White House
Office of the First Lady
For Immediate Release

Remarks by the First Lady at Christening of U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Stratton in Pascagoula, Mississippi

 11:15 A.M. CDT 

MRS. OBAMA:  Thank you all.  Thank you.  Thanks so much.  Mike, thank you for that very kind introduction.  I think you gave me a few promotions along the way, but that’s okay, I’ll take them.  (Laughter.)  

And to you and all of the shipbuilders and their families who are here today -- congratulations on this truly magnificent ship.  It is amazing.

Here in Pascagoula, you have been building ships for centuries.  It’s in your blood.  It’s a proud tradition passed on from generation to generation.  Your hands have given us some of the greatest ships in the United States Navy and Coast Guard.  So whether you’re a welder or a fitter or a burner -- whatever your craft -- today is also a tribute to you and your families, and we thank you, as a grateful nation.  (Applause.)

Secretary Napolitano; Admiral Papp and Linda, and all our outstanding Coast Guard leaders, personnel and their families -- especially those of you from Coast Guard Station Pascagoula; members and friends of the Stratton family; First Lady Marsha Barbour; Representative Taylor; distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen:

It is an incredible privilege to be with you today.  And I thank you for the great honor of being the first First Lady to sponsor a United States Coast Guard cutter.  (Applause.)  And believe me, I am humbled that its namesake is the first woman to serve as a commissioned officer in the United States Coast Guard -- one of the true pioneers in American history -- Captain Dorothy C. Stratton.  (Applause.) 

The christening of a ship is a tradition that I hear goes back thousands of years.  And according to some legend, one sponsor’s aim was so bad that the bottle hit someone in the audience.  (Laughter.)  So fortunately, these days the bottle is tied tight and we’re way over there.  So all of you in the front row can breathe a sigh of relief. 

Today is a wonderful celebration of an extraordinary life and the meaning that it holds for all of us.  Like most of you, I wasn’t fortunate enough to know Captain Stratton personally.  But I have come to know her story.  And as a woman, and as a mother of two daughters, as an American, I stand in awe of her life of service.  And after all these years later, all of us -- whether you’re a woman or a man, Coast Guard or another service, whether you’re military or civilian -- every American can be inspired by her example.

Because Captain Stratton taught us first about love of country.  See, she didn’t come from a military family.  And she certainly didn’t dream of wearing the uniform.  Instead, she distinguished herself first in academia.  But what happened?  Pearl Harbor was bombed, and our country was at war.  So she volunteered.  And when a colleague at Purdue University said -- and this is a quote -- “Dorothy, you can’t afford to do this,” her reply was simple.  She said, “I can’t afford not to.”

Captain Stratton also taught us about perseverance.  See, for all its opportunities, the SPARs were still limited.  They couldn’t give men orders, which is an absolute problem.  (Laughter.)  They couldn’t serve overseas, or even go to sea.  Later in life, she would say, “I’m sometimes referred to as the commanding officer of the SPARs.  Actually, I had no command authority.  All I had was the power of persuasion.” 

And that’s just how Captain Stratton taught us about the power of a single individual to bring about real change.  She traveled the country, giving speeches, recruiting other women, including, for the first time in the Coast Guard, African American women.  To so many of those young women, she became their mentor, she became their champion and their inspiration.  And she built them into a proud 11,000-strong Coast Guard Women’s Reserve.  (Applause.)

And Captain Stratton taught us what’s possible when people are given the opportunity to show their potential.  The SPARs were designed to free up men for the war.  But it also freed a new generation of women to believe in themselves -- as radio operators, air traffic controllers, parachute riggers and machinists.  These women were strong, independent, confident.  As Captain Stratton said, “All we asked was for the Coast Guard just to give the women a chance.  They gave the women the chance, and the women made good.”  (Applause.) 

And perhaps -- perhaps most remarkably, Captain Stratton broke all of these barriers in just four short years. Yet those four years gave birth to a legacy that lives on even today.

Her legacy lives on first in the love of her family, including those who join us today, who I’m looking forward to meeting -- her niece Barbara, her nephew Richard, and their families, and Captain Stratton’s dear friend, Sally Watlington.  We want to thank you all for being here, for keeping her memory alive.  Thank you so much.  (Applause.) 

But her legacy lives on in the admiration of her fellow SPARs -- these amazing women who marched and drilled and trained and proved themselves more than worthy of America’s uniform.  And as one of them said with pride, “We were full-fledged and we were salty.  By gosh, we were Coast Guard.” 

And while most of those original 11,000 are no longer with us, we are truly honored to be joined today by more than 20 surviving SPARs.  They have traveled, I understand, from all across the country to be with us. And again, I’d like to join in a tribute to you all.  Thank you so much.  You are extraordinary women -- part of the Greatest Generation.  (Applause.)

The legacy of Captain Stratton and her SPARs lives on in all those who followed in their footsteps.  After World War II, it would be another 30 years before women started to be fully admitted to the Coast Guard and other services.  But ask any of those women -- including those here today -- and they’ll tell you that it was Captain Stratton, the SPARs and the women of World War II who opened the door so that they could walk through and proudly serve this country. 

Today, women not only serve on ships, they command them; serve as Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard.   They have proven their courage in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I was proud to welcome to the White House some of the women who broke that “brass ceiling” -- including Army General Ann Dunwoody, the first woman in American history to achieve the rank of four-star general.  (Applause.)  So today -- today it is absolutely clear for all to see that women in uniform are indispensable to American military. 

We see it in today’s Coast Guard -- men and women, officer and enlisted, Active, Reserve -- succeeding together as one team -- “Team Coast Guard.”  And true to their motto, they are “Always Ready” -- securing our coasts; protecting our ports; stopping drugs that would end up on our streets; responding to disasters, as we saw in Haiti; and serving in every one of America’s wars, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

We’ve seen this same spirit right here in the Gulf Coast.  Our Coast Guard men and women were the first on the scene when that rig exploded, and they have been here ever since.  And I had the pleasure of meeting with some of them this morning.  They make us proud.  They come from all over the country to help with the largest response of its kind in American history. 

And it’s important to know that many of them are reservists, so they got their orders, they kissed their families good-bye, they deployed on very little notice.  And they are making a difference every day, and they’re keeping even more oil off the beaches.  So along with all our men and women in uniform who are lending a hand, they deserve our thanks.  We are so proud as a nation of what you all are doing.  (Applause. 

We’re all relieved that the leak appears to have been stopped for now.  And today, I can share some more good news.  About one-third of the federal waters in the Gulf that were closed to fishing -- more than 25,000 square miles -- have been reopened.  (Applause.)  Also, the seafood from these waters has been tested and it is safe to eat.  (Applause.)  But I want you to know that the President, his administration, they are doing everything they can to get you all back fishing right here in Mississippi, too.  (Applause.)  And our Coast Guard, our country, we are going to stand with you as long as it takes to clean this up and to help this region recover. 

But, of course, this is not over.  In Pascagoula and all along the coast, I know that you and your families are still hurting.  So I want the whole country to know what I’ve been saying -- there are beaches down here, and they are open, and they are beautiful.  And even though there may be some bad weather in the next few days, the best way that this country can help this region is to come down here, right, come here -- (applause) -- visit, support these communities.  And, yes, in fact, the President and I, we are going to come on down.  (Applause.)  We’re happy to announce yesterday that we’ll be coming down to the Gulf.  I’m not sure where, because that’s another life -- they plan my life and they send me off.  (Laughter.)  But we’re going to come down for a little family vacation next month.  And we can’t wait.  (Applause.)

The point is, we are all together in this.  We have to be.  Here in Pascagoula and the Gulf Coast, you guys already know this.  Over the years, you’ve seen some really tough times and some terrible storms.  But you have always pulled through because you’ve always pulled together.  We can’t do it alone.  You know that as neighbors, as Americans, we all have a responsibility to each other. 

So, too, when it comes to one of my defining missions as First Lady, and that is supporting our incredible men and women in uniform and their families. 

I have issued a national challenge -- a challenge to every sector of American society to mobilize and take action to support and engage our military families.  It’s a challenge not just to government, but to the private sector, to communities, and most importantly, to every single individual citizen.  See, one percent of Americans may be fighting in our wars and protecting our country, but 100 percent of Americans need to be supporting our troops and their families.  And, see, the thing is -- (applause) -- everyone can do something.  Everyone can play a part.

And Captain Stratton knew this, because it was the story of her life -- an amazing 107-year life.  For as long as she could, she was still giving back.  She was still finding ways to serve her country; still encouraging and engaging with the Coast Guard that she loved; still inspiring the next generation -- serving as a role model, not just to our daughters and our granddaughters, but, yes, to our sons and our grandsons, too.

And the thing is, that may be her greatest legacy of all.  And if you’ve ever been to our nation’s capital, you can see this for yourself.  There’s -- right there at the entrance at Arlington National Cemetery, where so many of America’s fallen heroes rest, stands this beautiful tribute -- it’s the Women in Military Service of America Memorial.  It’s beautiful.  It honors the service of all those brave women who have served to keep us free.

And if you climb the granite steps and you stroll along the curved walkways, you’ll come across words etched forever in glass.  And they are the words of Captain Dorothy C. Stratton, and they read:  “We wanted to serve our country in times of need.  The Coast Guard gave us this opportunity and we did our job well.”

So, to the SPARs who join us today, thank you for your job done so very well.  (Applause.)  To the Coast Guard and to the crew of the Stratton, thank you.  Thank you for the honor of being associated with you and your families, which I will treasure for the rest of my life.  And thank you to all of you.  Thank you for the job that you all do every day to keep America and its ships so strong and so proud. 

God bless you all.  God bless America.  And Semper Paratus!

    Thank you so much. 

                   END           11:32 A.M. CDT