Graduates of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy toss caps at...

Graduates of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy toss caps at the end of commencement. (June 21, 2004) Credit: JOEL CAIRO

This story was originally published in Newsday on June 22, 2004

Under a brilliant sky, dignitaries saluted the 182 midshipmen at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point during commencement exercises yesterday, praising the academic rigor and strength of character the graduates had demonstrated.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta spoke of those traits as he laid out the challenges facing the country and many of the midshipmen, 41 of whom received commissions for active duty service in the Armed Services. Others not entering active military duty were commissioned as ensigns in the U.S. Naval Reserves, and obtained employment at sea or ashore in the maritime industry.

"We are fortunate to have a president who understands the nature of the threat that we face, who understands that it is our freedom and it is our way of life that are under attack," Mineta told the graduates and several hundred of their relatives and friends in the stands at the academy's Tomb Field.

"Our enemies believe that free societies are weak," Mineta continued, "and that Americans are soft and decadent. But they have only to cross the threshold of Vickery Gate," Mineta said of the entrance to the academy, that is "home to men and women of exceptional character and uncommon valor. Maybe it has something to do with the regimental values of the academy that stress integrity from within, respect for others, encouragement in adversity and service above self," he said.

"Some of you took your places on the front lines in the war on terrorism even before you graduated," Mineta said, noting that 21 members of the class of 2004, along with faculty and staff, were part of rescue and evacuation efforts at the World Trade Center following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and 28 members of the class were on sea training assignments aboard merchant ships that took ammunition and supplies to U.S. troops in Iraq.

Then members of the graduating class - which included one student from Panama and, for the first time, one student from Canada - tossed their caps into the air in a celebratory conclusion of the ceremony.

Among them was John Hays Hammond II, 24, of Indianapolis, whose next step will be flight training with the U.S. Navy, and after that active duty. "It was difficult. It was long. It was hard," Hammond, an honors graduate, said of his Kings Point experience. But he added the difficulty "makes me appreciate it that much more. I got a lot out of this place. I learned a lot about myself," he said as his proud father, John Hammond, looked on.

"We are just excited as we can be," his father said.