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At USMMA graduation, James Mattis stresses integrity

U.S. Defense Secretary James N. Mattis speaks during

U.S. Defense Secretary James N. Mattis speaks during the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy commencement ceremony in Kings Point on Saturday. Credit: Barry Sloan

Integrity, preparedness and taking responsibility for one’s actions are the necessary foundation of a military career, the nation’s defense chief said Saturday in Kings Point.

“Always know where your boots are,” U.S. Defense Secretary James N. Mattis said at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s commencement ceremony. “Always be ready when trouble looms, because war and the sea are unforgiving environments.”

Mattis, who retired as a four-star general in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2013, was the featured speaker at the event. USMMA conferred 191 degrees and marked the 75th anniversary of its founding during World War II.

“You have to be men and women of integrity,” he told the students. “You’ve got to live up to the standard. You don’t want to live down from it.”

While Mattis spent more than 40 years in the Marines, his father was a Merchant Marine officer from 1935 to 1949. He was appointed defense secretary on Jan. 20, 2017, the same day that Donald Trump became president.

Mattis enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve at age 18 and was commissioned a second lieutenant upon graduating from Central Washington University in 1971. He commanded Marine units in Iraq in 1991, in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and in Iraq again in 2003. He also held leadership posts at the Pentagon, NATO and U.S. Central Command.

Mattis also talked about leadership during his Long Island visit.

“We need leaders who show a strong sense of ethics today. You need to be a source of strength for your subordinates,” he said.

USMMA is one of five federal service academies. It prepares students for jobs in transportation and defense.

In return for a tuition-free education, graduates commit to five years of active duty in a branch of the U.S. armed forces, or five years in the maritime industry along with eight years in a U.S. military reserve unit. About one-third of USMMA graduates enter the armed services as commissioned officers.

Also speaking Saturday was Capt. Nancy L. Wagner, a 1978 USMMA graduate, and one of the first women admitted to the academy in 1974.

Wagner, who is considered a pioneering merchant mariner, became the nation’s first female ship pilot in 1990. She retired in 2015 and has been recognized by the academy’s alumni association.

“When opportunity comes, seize it,” Wagner told the students. “Control your own destiny.”

The 82nd commencement ceremony will likely be the last for Rear Adm. James A. Helis as USMMA superintendent. In May, he was selected for a top job at the U.S. Maritime Administration in Washington, the agency that oversees the academy.

As the 12th USMMA superintendent, Helis’ tenure was marked by clashes with the powerful alumni association, millions of dollars in renovations to facilities and piers, and criticism of the school’s handling of sexual misconduct cases on campus and during Sea Year, the signature training program during which midshipmen serve on military and commercial vessels around the world.

Mark H. Buzby, head of the federal maritime administration, praised the Class of 2018 for embracing anti-harassment policies and adjusting to a suspension of the use of commercial ships for Sea Year for a time because of sexual misconduct concerns.

“You weathered some pretty choppy waters over the past few years and emerged better and stronger for it, both individually and as a class,” said Buzby, a 1979 USMMA graduate. “This class also took important first steps in saying ‘enough is enough’ and embarked on creating a new campus culture ... where every midshipman is respected, valued and able to fully develop their potential. Well done!”

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