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Pageantry, Tradition And Inspiration Mark USMMA 76th Commencement Exercises

Hard work, determination, endurance and high spirits praised

There is a certain grandeur in all the events held at the Kings Point United States Merchant Marine Academy, but none can top the thrill of witnessing 219 young men and women from across America and from around the world as they graduate from a rigorous and at times grueling four-year program in academics and seamanship. According to Academy figures, 21 percent of these graduates will serve in active military duty and 67 percent will be employed on board commercial and navy ships.

Dr. Kumar, interim superintendent told the graduates, “Together we have navigated tempestuous waters, yet we have stayed the course and made it to the boat safe and sound...you have been an outstanding class, the best I have seen in my five years here...it is my honor to give you away to the nation, to the world as our proud ambassadors.”

The Secretary of the Department of Transportation Ray La Hood thanked Dr. Kumar for stepping forward to lead the Academy during the troubled times when the superintendent’s office was vacant. The secretary reaffirmed his commitment to the academy and its high priority for him. He quoted from the Academy’s motto, “Deeds not words” as his watchwords. His promise to appoint a superintendent to lead the institution was fulfilled barely a week after graduation with the announcement of Colonel James Helis’s appointment to lead the institution starting in mid-July.

He said, “We recognize that a strong merchant marine is not a luxury...it is a necessity...we are rebuilding the Academy and are committed to updating every corner of this campus until it reflects the excellence of the fine men and women walking this campus.”

LaHood introduced Captain Kelly and also welcomed his wife, Congresswoman “Gabby” Giffords, who received a long and heartfelt standing ovation.

With such a high-flying and famous career, Captain Kelly’s address was refreshingly candid and humble. He encouraged the graduates to set high goals. He said that when he graduated from the Academy, his goal was to to be the first person to walk on the planet Mars. “My crazy ambition was a great gift to myself...it set me down a path that ended with my going into space four times.” He headed for flight school in 1986 in Pensacola, Florida, but realized during his training that “I was not a particularly good pilot...after months of training I could barely land that airplane...” He recounted his first landing on a ship’s “tiny flight deck, bobbing on the water. “It’s a scary affair....when the Navy sends you to land on a flight deck for the first time, nobody is crazy enough to go with you.” After his difficult landings, an instructor asked him if he thought piloting was a good career choice.

Kelly emphasized, “How good you are at the beginning is not an indicator of how good you can become...I overcame a lack of aptitude with practice, persistence and the drive to never give up. Remember, I started out as a lousy pilot and ended up as an astronaut.”

His other advice to the graduates was to learn to communicate clearly. He told the story of an opening night bombing mission during Operation Desert Storm. “We launched into the darkness of night...when we got to Iraq the entire country appeared to be on fire. We encountered two Russian missiles, one of which detonated right next to our plane...On the way out of Iraq that night, I decided I wanted to avoid the area with the Russian missiles..so I decided to head directly east...into Iran...Despite the repeated protests from my navigator, I went about 150 miles into Iran before hanging a right turn..” As Kelly listened to the airwaves, he became aware that preparations were underway to deal with an approaching enemy aircraft traveling at a certain speed and altitude. He thought to himself, that poor pilot doesn’t have a chance against our guys. Suddenly, he realized that the speed and altitude being tracked was his own. “The lightbulb went off and I realized that it was me they were about to shoot down. I yelled into the radio, ‘Do not shoot down the moron in Iranian airspace.’”  Afterwards, he had plenty of time to reflect on what had happened. “I was nearly killed because I didn’t properly communicate with the folks I worked with...There is never an excuse for not having timely, accurate, and effective communication.”

He then spoke of the last year’s personal challenges. After the assassination  attempt on his wife during which a bullet pierced her brain, he said, “My wife fought to survive and then to recover and when she heads off in the morning for therapy she says, ‘Fight, fight, fight.’ She reminds me every day to deny the acceptance of failure...we know that life can change in seconds...” He quoted from Emerson who wrote, “Go where there is no path and leave a trail.” He encouraged the graduates, “You have an incredible adventure before you. As my wife always says, ‘Be passionate, be strong and be your best.’”

And in accord with tradition, Captain Ken Force directed the Regimental Band in a rousing service anthem medley during which those students going into military service stood up for their specific anthem.

The celebratory event was a special end to a year, marked by many challenges to the institution, that should only be as resilient as its students.