Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told graduating seniors at the Naval Academy yesterday to prepare for new and uncertain threats after the war on terrorism, from nuclear and biological weapons to hostage-takers and drug lords.
"One day the war on terror will end - not soon, but it will end, and you will face still more challenging tasks," Rumsfeld said in a forward-looking address to the 970 graduates, nearly all of whom were commissioned yesterday as officers in the Navy or Marine Corps.
Those new challenges include a world of perhaps "double the number of nuclear nations," he said. "Or a world with novel and still-unimagined information-age challenges or biological threats, or a world with still more ungoverned areas inhabited by terrorists, by hostage-takers and by drug lords."
The defense secretary delivered his remarks to a class that straddled the giddy boom times of the late 1990s, the horror of the Sept. 11 attacks, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Two academy graduates died in the Iraqi conflict, and many graduating seniors will deploy within months to the front lines of an upended world.
"What a great time to join the fleet," Hansford T. Johnson, the acting Navy secretary, told the graduates and some 20,000 guests in a rain-soaked Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. "Our forces are carrying the torch of freedom throughout the world, a shining light to guide the way for liberty and security."
The campaign against terror and the war in Iraq have infused the campus on the banks of the Severn River with a new urgency, graduates said yesterday in interviews.
Teachers altered lesson plans to focus on questions raised by the war. Students gathered in dormitory halls at night to passionately debate the war's strategy and morality. And they devoured the news with a proprietary interest, ducking into lounges between classes to watch - and dissect - the latest wrinkle.
"It gave us a greater sense of pride," said Rheanna Sinnett, 22, of Annapolis. "We're not just going to school, we're focusing on the bigger picture."
Sinnett, who will spend the next two years in Pensacola, Fla., learning to be a pilot, says history likely will give her a chance to use her training. "I would never say, `I want to go to war,' " she said. "But there's no fun in practicing all the time if you don't actually use it."
Other midshipmen were just looking forward to a month of vacation before they plunge back into the stresses of a wartime military. Dan Schwartz, 22, of West Bend, Wis., is bound for the Marines. But first he is going to Miami. "I'm going to be at South Beach," he said, a grin spreading across his face. "I'll be at the Best Western and I'm going to work off four years at the Naval Academy."
Students at Annapolis receive their $250,000 educations at taxpayer expense, and in exchange must serve for at least five years.
A light rain fell through much of the 2 1/2 -hour ceremony, and by the time the graduates tossed their white hats in the air, they were sopping wet and shivering, if still smiling. The academy had been ready to move the ceremony indoors to Alumni Hall, but opted against it early yesterday morning, in part because the stadium has nearly six times the seating capacity.
The drizzle and low clouds led the Blue Angels, the Navy's daredevil team of fighter jets, to scrap their traditional flyover at the start of the ceremony.
After the first 100 graduates shook hands with Rumsfeld and took their diplomas yesterday, the rain grew heavier and the academy superintendent, Vice Adm. Richard J. Naughton, asked the mids whether they wanted to go on.
A roar went up from the seniors, and the procession continued through a steady rain for more than an hour.
When Joe Douglas Prowell, an economics major, collected his diploma, his classmates leapt to their feet and cheered. Prowell was the class's "anchor man," a celebrated title even though it signifies a class rank of dead last. (According to one academy history book, at least a dozen anchor men have risen from that lowly status to become admirals.)
Many members of the Class of 2003 never made it to graduation. Of the 1,232 who entered as freshmen four years ago, more than 260 washed out.
The graduates included 148 women and 174 minorities. The top-ranked senior, Nathan Andrew Fleischaker, an electrical engineering major from Carlsbad, Calif., is one of 159 graduates entering the Marines.
Security at the stadium appeared lighter than it did when Vice President Dick Cheney spoke last year, but lines backed up at the gates as military guards searched bags for weapons and explosives.
Rumsfeld, a graduate of Princeton University and former peacetime naval aviator, last addressed academy graduates in 1976, while serving as defense secretary to President Gerald R. Ford during the Cold War. Like today's graduates, Rumsfeld said, those midshipmen were preparing for the threats of the day, only to discover new ones in the following years.