Captain Mark Kelly, a 1986 alum of the US Merchant Marine Academy who went on to become a naval aviator and NASA astronaut, delivered an inspiring commencement address to the 219 graduates.
The Academy's 76th Commencement Exercises on Monday, June 18, was notable also for the attendance of Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, making a return visit to the school, whch is in Kings Point, Long Island, and Maritime Administrator David T Matsuda.
Matsuda, in his remarks, noted that USMMA has always been a priority for the Administration, and that new cargo security systems demonstrate the administration's interest "in a future built on seafaring."
Secretary LaHood also emphasized this administration's deep commitment in support of USMMA, and its belief that "a strong merchant marine is not a luxury, but a necessity for US security. We are committed to upgrading every corner of this campus..
"It is part of an investment in an America built to last," LaHood said, using a phrase that is emblematic of Obama's wide-ranging economic development policy.
Captain Kelly who is one of the stellar graduates of the Kings Point academy, went into space four times: twice as a shuttle pilot and twice as commander, and commanded the last mission of Endeavor before the shuttle craft was retired. He flew that historic mission as his wife, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was recovering - but out of danger - from being gunned down as she held a "Congress on the Corner" event in Tucson, Arizona on Jan. 8, 2011, which changed forever the fairytale life of an astronaut married to a congresswoman.
Giffords, who sat in the audience and rose at the national anthems of the United States and the foreign countries represented by graduates (Korea, Malaysia, Panama, Singapore) were played, received a standing ovation, herself. Their daughter was also in attendance.
Kelly had wonderful words of wisdom for the US Merchant Marine Academy graduating class of 2012: about the importance of setting wild, ambitious goals (he didn't make it to Mars, which was his goal, but he did command a rocket into outer space); the importance of communication; the importance of teamwork, but avoiding "groupthink." About the importance of decision-making - in battle, and in health care. About how life can throw you a curveball. About the importance of not giving in to defeat or failure.
"You are at a crossroads, where destiny not yet been determined, where you can set your own path," Captain Kelly said
"At this junction in life, I had big goal," Kelly recalled of his own graduation from the Academy in 1986.
"I wanted to be first person to walk on Mars. My crazy ambition turned out... I didn't get to Mars, but I got close.
"I drove out this gate and went directly to Pensacola to flight school.
"I had the cheesy music from the movie 'Top Gun' playing on the radio as I drove through gate, 'Danger'.
"I found out that I am not a maverick - not even a good pilot.
"I had to land on aircraft carrier. - they send you by yourself for the first time since nobody is crazy enough to go with you. All you have is the skills acquired from practice - which is not much.
"I had two touch-and-go and four arrested landings. After that, my commander asked, 'Are you sure this is the career for you?'
"Tom Cruise - the actor - would have been better."
But, he continued, "The others who did well that day did not go on to be astronauts. How you do at beginning isn't necessarily [how things will turn out].
"I am prime example of someone able to overcome lack of aptitude with persistence, drive.
"Remember, I started out as a lousy pilot and ended up commanding a rocket ship into space."
So, he told the 2012 graduates, "Don't ever give up - set some crazy, ambitious goal. Like me, it may not turn out exactly as planned - Mars - but the journey is worth the effort."
Communication is also crucial, he counsels the cadets, a lesson he learned the hard way.
He relates how he was 25 years old, and headed out on his first combat mission: the opening night of Desert Storm, the first Gulf war against Saddam Hussein.
Bombs were loaded on his aircraft, he picked up a full load of gas, and headed north
"When I got to Iraq, the entire country was on fire. A Russian-built surface-to-air missile nearly hit my plane.
"Churchill, in World War I, had said, 'Nothing is more exciting than being shot at and missed.' Well, the experience is exciting but until you know you aren't going to die, it's not fun."
Not wanting to fly through the area that was firing the missiles, he headed east.
"What's east of Iraq? Iran. So, despite repeated protests [from his copilot], he flew 150 miles into Iran, then hung a right hand turn back towards the Gulf.
Kelly heard a call to scramble fighters. "I looked at the coordinates and realized it was my plane they were coming to attack.
"I had just survived Russian missiles but was about to be shot down by US F 18s."
So he got on the radio and said, "Do not shoot down the moron in Iranian airspace."
"I was nearly killed because I didn't properly communicate. Communication is crucial," he said. "All of you will likely work on a team - it is critical to communicate. I learned that lesson early and it nearly cost me my life."
He also offered advice about decision-making - in one's professional and personal life.
"You will have to make many decisions - on your job, or concerning the health care of a spouse, a family member.
"NASA had some accidents: Challenger, when I was a first classman here, in 1981; then Columbia, in 2003. These accidents caused the death of 14 crew members.
"Columbia hit close to home - three of the astronauts were my classmates and I was the unfortunate individual who had to retrieve their bodies.
"Both accidents were partly attributable to poor decision making.
"After my wife injured, I wanted not to make bad decision about her care. At the hospital, I saw a saying on the wall: 'None of us is as dumb as all of us.'
"Sometimes a team makes a decision that no single person would make - group think."
His experience over past year after the accident, also taught him "a thing or two about power of human spirit.
"It's been an incredible experience to watch Gabby first survive, then come back. Each day as she goes off to therapy she says, 'Fight, fight, fight.'"
The lesson he draws from that: Deny the acceptance of failure
"Life can present unanticipated challenges. Deny the acceptance of failure.
"I went to school here. Graduation comes with high expectations - from family and others... Listen to those But listen to yourself
"Find the thing -a job- that makes you happy. You can't live anyone else's experience.
He quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."
"Be passionate. Be strong," he told the graduates.
The US Merchant Marine Academy is the only institution that requires 175 credits to graduate; graduates also pass three licensing exams and have, in addition to the academics, requirements for an internship, physical, and co-curricular activities.
In fact, as Valedictorian, Midshipman Lieutenant Riley Scott McQuiston of Burien, Washington, told his classmates, the Academy tops Princeton Review's list for "least happy" students in America because of the arduous demands which includes a semester at sea.
Indeed, the Merchant Marine Academy, founded during World War II, is the only one of the five service academies that flies the Battle s=Standard in its color guard, perpetuating the memory of 142 cadet midshipmen who lost their lives in World War II. The USMMA's Battle Standard bears the number "142."
To attend the academy, the cadets have to be nominated by a member of Congress.
Graduates represent nearly every state and the five foreign countries of Panama, Singapore, South Korea, Philippines and Malaysia. Approximately 2,300 guests attended the event, including family members and guests of the graduating class, and distinguished visitors representing the federal government, flag and general officers from the Armed Forces, senior executives from industry, community leaders, alumni, faculty and staff.
The procession was led by members of the Legacy Class of 1962.
This year, the US Merchant Marine administered nine Master of Marine Engineering degrees, a program launched in September 2006 as a distance-learning program.
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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