Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Bush is First President to Speak at U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Graduation

That President Bush was the first sitting U.S. President to speak at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy graduation was indeed historic. It was something for which many have worked and lobbied for quite some time. When I graduated from the Academy in 1991, our commencement speaker was Vice-President Dan Quayle. Until now, he had been the most high profile commencement speaker in Academy history. Now, finally, Kings Point (the Academy is located in the village of Kings Point, NY, and, much like "West Point" is used to refer to the U.S. Military Academy, "Kings Point" is used to refer to the USMMA) is no longer the only one of the five federal academies to not have had the President of the United States speak at a graduation.
Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke at the opening of the academy in 1943, Bush is the first commander in chief to address a graduating class.

"I know that a presidential visit to Kings Point has been a long time in coming," Bush said at the start of his remarks on the school's football field under a blazing 85-degree sun. "I hope it's worth the wait."

He joked with the midshipmen that they had "braved the Jamaican beef patties" of the school cafeteria and "survived the restriction musters that come with missing the train back from Manhattan."

Merchant mariners have long played a vital role in the nation's maritime industry. Kings Points graduates work as deck officers aboard container ships, oil tankers, passenger cruise ships and other vessels. Others are engineers in shipbuilding companies and work in a variety of port operations, including security.

The approximately 250 graduates received bachelor's degrees in marine engineering or marine transportation and a merchant marine officer's license. They are required to spend five years in the maritime industry and eight years in the U.S. Naval Reserve as payback for a free college education. About 25 percent satisfy their obligation with a five-year active duty military commission.

A unique aspect of the education at Kings Point is the so-called "Sea Year" _ internships in which students are placed on working commercial vessels including container ships, oil tankers, passenger liners, and military vessels ferrying supplies to war zones.

"Today Kings Point is still the only one of our five service academies that sends its students into theaters of war," Bush noted. "For that reason it is the only academy authorized to fly a battle standard."
Kings Pointers do have a proud history. Cadet-Midshipmen (as they were called at the time) served on vessels during WWII, and some went down with their ships. Engine Cadet Edwin O'Hara is probably the most well-known--the Academy's gymnasium is named for him--and was one of the many Merchant Mariners whoe received the Distinguished Service Medal for his actions. There were also Cadets among the Merchant Mariners who were POWs during WWII. Cadet-Midshipmen like O'Hara have served in every major conflict since WWII, up to and including operations in support of the Iraq War. They also provided assistance in the aftermath of 9/11 by using watercraft from the Academy to ferry survivors and aid workers to and from the World Trade Center site.

Despite the accomplishments and dedication of both its midshipman and graduates, there has always been a general feeling among us "Kings Pointers" that USMMA was the "stepchild" of the 5 academies and that we had gone unrecognized. In recent years this has changed, thanks in large part to the belated recognition of the contributions the Merchant Marine to the Allied cause during WWII.

By simply attending the 2006 USMMA graduation, President Bush did more for the moral of Kings Pointers past and present than any of the kind words he said. The Academy motto is Acta non Verba, "Deeds not Words". We Kings Pointers pride ourselves on letting our actions speak for us and yesterday, President Bush did the same.

Other Links:
American Merchant Marine at War
American Merchant Marine Museum

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